The course consists of six lessons (2 hours each) that explore humanity’s fascination and understanding of the Red Planet, culminating with two questions: One, how has our knowledge and understanding evolved over time? Two, can human beings thrive (not just survive) there someday? Considering that humans Mars have been exploring Mars for more than sixty years, and been looking up at the Red Planet since time immemorial, there’s a fair bit to unpack there.
This news has been a few months in the making, but with the final preparations underway, I feel like it’s time to announce it! In a few weeks, I will be launching my podcast series – Stories from Space – with the Intersection Of Technology, Cybersecurity, And Society Podcast (ITSP), a highly-respected channel that hosts multiple shows. Each of these is dedicated to exploring the past, the present, and the future of humanity’s relationship with technology and the profound effects it can have on our society.
Recently, I learned that there’s an actual Martian calendar, known as the Darian Calendar. It was crafted by aerospace engineer Thomas Gangale in 1985, who named it after his son Darius. It was also adopted by the Mars Society in 1998 and will be the official calendar of Martian settlers (if and when permanent settlements are built on Mars someday).
Good news! Not long ago, I took part in a podcast with Liam Ginty – the man who created Voices From L5. This program deals with the subject of space exploration and colonization, and he decided to do a podcast all about terraforming. After coming across my series on the subject over at Universe Today, he contacted me, and we got to talking. By the time we were done, we had created an episode dedicated to the subject.
The episode is about 45 minutes long, and covers such issues as terraforming vs. space habitats, the ethics of terraforming, the challenges and benefits, and whether or not such a thing is likely to happen. If you’ve got some time, and don’t mind hearing my voice (I am still not comfortable hearing it), then check it out.
Hi again folks! I’m back with some thoughts from my most recent story project – The Jovian Incident. I know, what else is new, right? Writing can be a self-indulgent process. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, its that sharing helps when it comes to developing a story. It helps you articulate your thinking and ideas, especially if respected peers tell you what they think (hint, hint!)
As I also learned a long time ago, any science fiction piece that deals with the distant future has to take into account how human beings in the future go about organizing themselves. In this future world, what are the political blocs, the alliances, the rivalries – the ways in which people are united and divided? Well, I gave that a lot of thought before sitting down to pen the book (which is into chapter 11 now). And this is the basic breakdown I came up with.
Extro Factions: For starters, people in the future I am envisioning are tentatively divided into those that live in the inner and outer Solar Systems. But that geographic divide is merely representative of a much bigger issue that divides humanity. Whereas the people living on Earth, Mars and Venus largely fall into the category of “Extro” (i.e. Extropian, people who embrace the transhuman ethic) people in the outer Solar System live simpler, less augmented and enhanced lives (“Retro”).
But within this crude division between people who believe in going beyond their biological limitations and those who believe in respecting them, there are plenty of different social, political and ideological groups to be found. Here’s a rundown on them, starting with the Extro factions…
The Formists: Founded by Piter Chandrasekhar, one of the first colonists of Mars, the Formists are a faction dedicated to the full-scale terraforming of the Red Planet. The purpose of this, obviously, is to allow for full-scale colonization, which is something that remains impossible at this point in the story. All inhabitants on Mars lived in sealed domes, all transit takes place in pressurized tubes or on flyers, and anyone venturing out onto the surface is forced to wear a pressure suit with life-support systems.
Currently, the Formist faction is run by Emile Chandrasekhar, Piter’s grandson. And for the past few decades, they have been busy procuring resources from the outer Solar System to aid in the terraforming process. This includes supplies of methane, ammonia, ices, and lots and lots of comets.
However, they are also busy trying to ensure that the process will have a minimal impact on the settlements and those living within them. Altering the planet’s atmosphere will definitely have a significant impact on the landscape in the short-term, such as sublimating all the water ice in the Martian soil and in the polar caps. Once that water begins to flow, much of the surface will find itself being swallowed up by newly-created oceans. So naturally, the Formists must proceed slowly, and make sure all settlements on Mars agree to their plans.
While the Formist faction is largely centered on Mars, they have counterparts on Venus as well – known as The Graces (after the children of Aphrodite). Here, the process is significantly different, and involves converting the existing atmosphere rather than increasing its density. But the goal is the same: to one day make Venus a living, breathing world human beings can set foot on.
The Dysonists: Among the Extros, there are also those who believe humanity’s future lies not in the stars or in the terraforming the Solar System’s planets, but in the space that surrounds our Sun. They are known as the Dysonists, a faction that is intent on building a massive swarm of structures in the inner Solar System. For some, this calls for a series of rings which house the inhabitants on their inner surface and provide gravity through endless rotation.
For other, more ambitious Dysonists, the plan involves massive swarms of computronium that will contain a sea of uploaded personalities living in simulated environments. Both the swarms and the powerful bandwidth that connects them will draw energy from the Sun’s rays. These individuals consider themselves to be the more puritan of Dysonists, and believe those who advocate buildings rings structures are more properly known as Nivenists.
The process of converting all the “dumb matter” in the Solar System into smart matter has already begun, but in limited form. Within a few generations, it is believed that the Sun will be surrounded by a “Torus” of uploaded minds that will live on while countless generations come and go. Dysonists and their enclaves can be found on Near-Earth Asteroids, in the Main Asteroid Belt, and with committed supporters living on Venus, Mars, Earth, the Moon, and Ceres.
The Habitationists: Inspired by Gerard K. O’Neill, the inventor of the O’Neill Cylinder, the Habitationists began as an architects dream that quickly expanded to fill all of known space. In the 21st century, Earthers looking to escape the growing population crisis began migrating to space. But rather than looking to live on distant worlds or the Moon, where the environment was harsh and the gravity limited, they decided to set up shop in orbit. Here, supplies could be shipped regularly, thanks to the advent of commercial aerospace, and gravity could be simulated at a full g thanks to rotating toruses.
By the mid 22nd century, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Habs had become all the rage and the skies became somewhat saturated. The existence of Earth’s space elevator (The Spindle) only made deploying and supplying these Habs easier, and a steady drop in the costs of manufacturing and deploying them only made them more popular. As such, Terran architect Hassan Sarawak, who had designed many of the original habitats in space, began to busy himself designing a new series of Habs that would allow human beings to live in space anywhere in the Solar System.
By the end of the 22nd century, when the story takes place, large cylinders exist in several key places in the Solar System. Most are named in honor of either their founders, those who articulated the concept of space habitats, or those who believed in the dream of colonizing space itself (and not just other planets and moons). These places are thusly named O’Neil’s Reach, Clarkestown, Sawarakand, and New Standford.
The Seedlings: As the name would suggest, the Seedlings are those intrepid Extropians who believe humanity should “seed” the galaxy with humanity, spreading to all solar systems that have confirmed exoplanets and building settlements there. But in a slight twist, they believe that this process should be done using the latest in nanotechnology and space penetrators, not slow interstellar ships ferrying human colonist and terraformers.
To the Seedlings, who can be found throughout the inner Solar System, and on some of its most distant moons, the idea is simple. Load up a tiny projectile-ship with billions of nanobots designed to slowly convert a planet’s climate, then fire it on a trajectory that will take it to an exoplanet many generations from now. Then, prepare a ship with colonists, send it on its merry way into space, and by the time they reach the distant world, it will be fully prepared for their arrival.
At this point in the story, the Seedlings first few missions are still in the planning stages. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how, and they know where the right candidate planets are located. All they need to do know is test out their machines and make sure the process works, so that they won’t be sending their colonists into a deathtrap.
Sidenote: this idea is actually one I explored in a short story I am trying to get published. If all goes well, I am the short story and this full-length idea can be connected as part of a singular narrative.
Retro Factions: And now we come to the people who live predominantly in the outer Solar System, the folks who found life on Earth and the inner worlds unlivable thanks to its breakneck pace and the fact that life was becoming far too complicated. These are the people whom – for religious, personal, or moral reasons – chose to live on the frontier worlds in order to ensure something other than humanity’s survival as a species. For these people, it was about preserving humanity’s soul.
Organics: In the mid to late 21st century, as biotech and cybernetics became an increasingly prevalent part of society, a divide began to emerge between people who enhanced their biology and neurology and those who did not. While the former were in the minority for the first few decades, by the latter half of the 21st century, more and more people began to become, in essence, “transhuman” – (i.e. more than human).
At the same time, fears and concerns began to emerge that humanity was forsaking the very things that made it human. With lives becoming artificially prolonged, human parts being swapped for bionic or biomimetic implants, and brains becoming enhanced with neural implants and “looms”, humanity seemed on course to becoming post-human (i.e. not human at all).
And while the concerns were justified, few who could afford such enhancements seemed to be willing to forsake the convenience and necessity they represented. In a world where they conferred advantage over the unenhanced, choosing not to augment one’s body and mind seemed foolish. But between those who could not afford to, those who were forbidden to, and those who chose not to, eventually a new underclass emerged – known as “Organics”.
Today’s organics, who live predominantly in the outer Solar System or isolated pockets in the inner worlds, are the descendants of these people. They live a simpler life, eschewing most of the current technology in favor for a more holistic existence, depending on various levels of technology to maintain a certain balance.
Fundies: Naturally, human beings in the late 22nd century still have their faiths and creeds. Despite what some said in previous centuries, mankind did not outgrow the need for religion as it began to explore space and colonizing new worlds. And when the Singularity took place in the mid 21st century, and life became increasingly complex, enhanced, and technologically-dominated, the world’s religiously-devout began to feel paradoxical. On the one hand, religion seemed to be getting more unpopular and obsolete; but at the same time, more rare and precious.
To be fair, there was a time when it seemed as though the prediction of a religion-less humanity might come true. In the early to mid 21st century, organized religion was in a noticeable state of decline. Religious institutions found it harder and harder to adapt to the times, and the world’s devout appeared to be getting increasingly radicalized. However, in and around all of these observable trends, there were countless people who clung to their faith and their humanity because they feared where the future was taking them.
In the current era, the outer Solar System has become a haven for many sects and religious organizations that felt the Inner Worlds were too intolerant of their beliefs. While there will always be people who embrace one sort of faith or another on all worlds – for instance, billions of Extros identify as Gnosi or Monist – the majority of devout Kristos, Sindhus, Mahavadans, Mahomets, and Judahs now call the worlds of Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Titania, Oberon, Ariel and Umbriel home.
The vast majority of these people want to live in peace. But for some, the encroachment of the Inner Worlds into the life and economies of their moons is something that must be stopped. They believe, as many do, that sooner or later, the Extro factions will try to overtake these worlds as well, and that they will either be forced to move farther out, colonizing the moons of Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, or find homes in new star systems entirely. As such, some are joining causes that are dedicated to pushing back against this intrusion…
Chauvians (Independents): Many in the past also thought that nationalism, that sense of pride that is as divisive as it is unifying, would also have disappeared by this point in time. And while humanity did begin to celebrate a newfound sense of unity by the late 21st century, the colonizing of new worlds had the effect of creating new identities that were bound to a specific space and place. And given the divisive political climate that exists in the late 22nd century, it was only natural that many people in the Outer Worlds began preaching a form of independent nationalism in the hopes of rallying their people.
Collectively, such people are known as “Chauvians“, a slight bastardization of the word “Jovian” (which applies to inhabitants of any of the outer Solar System’s moons). But to others, they are known simply as Independents, people striving to ensure their worlds remain free of external control. And to those belonging to these factions, their worlds and their people are endangered and something must be done to stop the intrusion of Extros into the outer Solar System. For the most part, their methods are passive, informative, and strictly political. But for others, extra-legal means, even violent means, are seen as necessary.
Examples include the Children of Jove and the Aquilan Front, which are native to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. On the Cronian moons, the Centimanes are the main front agitating for action against the Extros. And on the Uranian moons, the organizations known as The Furies and the Sky Children are the forces to be reckoned with. Whereas the more-moderate of these factions are suspected of being behind numerous protests, riots, and organized strikes, the radicals are believed to be behind the disappearance of several Extro citizens who went missing in the Outer Worlds. In time, it is believed that a confrontation will occur between these groups and the local authorities, with everyone else being caught in the middle.
And those are the relevant players in this story I’m working out. Hope you like them, because a few come into play in the first story and the rest I think could become central to the plots of any future works in the same universe. Let me know what you think! 🙂
Hey again, all. I find myself with some spare time for the first time in awhile. So I thought I might take a moment to share an idea I’ve been working with, in a bit more detail. Last post I made, I talked about the bare bones of a story I am working on known as Reciprocity, the successor to the story known as Apocrypha. But as it turns out, there are a lot of details to that story idea that I still want to share and get people’s opinion on.
You might say this is a story that I am particularly serious about. Should it work out, it would be my break from both space-opera sci-fi and zombie fiction. A foray into the world of hard-hitting social commentary and speculative science fiction.
The Story: So the year is 2030. The world is reeling from the effects of widespread drought, wildfires, coastal storms, flooding, and population displacement. At the same time, a revolution is taking place in terms of computing, robotics, biomachinery, and artificial intelligence. As a result, the world’s population finds itself being pulled in two different directions – between a future of scarcity and the promise of plenty.
Space exploration continues as private aerospace and space agencies all race to put boots on Mars, a settlement on the Moon, and lay claim to the resources of the Solar System. India, China, the US, the EU, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, and Iran are all taking part now – using robotic probes and rovers to telexplore the System and prospect asteroids. Humanity’s future as an interplanetary species seems all but guaranteed at this point.
Meanwhile, a new global balance of power is shaping up. While the US and the EU struggle with food and fuel shortages, Russia remains firmly in the grips of quasi-fascist interests, having spurned the idea of globalization and amicable relations with NATO and the EU in favor of its Collective Security Treaty, which in recent years has expanded to include Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, China is going through a period of transition. After the fall of Communism in 2023, the Chinese state is lurching between the forces of reform and ultra-nationalism, and no one is sure which side it will fall on. The economy has largely recovered, but the divide between rich and poor is all too apparent. And given the sense of listless frustration and angst, there is fear that a skilled politician could exploit it all too well.
It’s an era of uncertainty, high hopes and renewed Cold War.
The MacGuffin: The central item of the story is a cybervirus known as Baoying, a quantum-decryption algorithm that was designed by Unit 61398 in the early 2020’s to take down America’s quantum networks in the event of open war. When the Party fell from power, the Unit was dissolved and the virus itself was destroyed. However, rumors persisted that one or more copies still exist…
Notable Characters: For this ensemble to work, it had to represent a good cross-section of the world that will be, with all its national, social and economic boundaries represented. And so I came up with the following people, individuals who find themselves on different sides of what’s right, and are all their own mix of good, bad, and ambiguous.
William Harding: A privileged high school senior with an big of a drug problem who lives in Port Coquitlam, just outside of the Pacific Northwest megalopolis of Cascadia. Like many people his age, he carries all his personal computing in the form of implants. However, a kidnapping and a close brush with death suddenly expand his worldview. Being at the mercy of others and deprived of his hardware, he realizes that his lifestyle have shielded him from the real world.
Amy Dixon: A young refugee who has moved to Cascadia from the American South. Her socioeconomic status places her and her family at the fringes of society, and she is determined to change their fortunes by plying her talents and being the first in her family to get a comprehensive education.
Fernie Dixon: Amy’s brother, a twenty-something year-old man who lives away from her and claims to be a software developer. In reality, he is a member of the local Aryan Brotherhood, one of many gangs that run rampant in the outlying districts of the city. Not a true believer like his “brothers”, he seeks money and power so he can give his sister the opportunities he knows she deserves.
Shen Zhou: A former Lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army and member of Unit 61398 during the Cyberwars of the late teens. After the fall of Communism, he did not ingratiate himself to the new government and was accused of spying for foreign interests. As result, he left the country to pursue his own agenda, which places him in the cross hairs of both the new regime and western governments.
Arthur Banks: A major industrialist and part-owner of Harding Enterprises, a high-tech multinational that specializes in quantum computing and the development of artificial intelligence. For years, Banks and his associates have been working on a project known as QuaSI – a Quantum-based Sentient Intelligence that would revolutionize the world and usher in the Technological Singularity.
Rhianna Sanchez:Commander of Joint Task Force 2, an elite unit attached to National Security Agency’s Cyberwarfare Division. For years, she and her task force have been charged with locating terror cells that are engaged in private cyberwarfare with the US and its allies. And Shen Zhou, a suspected terrorist with many troubling connections, gets on their radar after a mysterious kidnapping and high-profile cyberintrusion coincide.
And that about covers the particulars. Naturally, there are a lot of other details, but I haven’t got all day and neither do you fine folks 😉 In any case, the idea is in the queue and its getting updated regularly. But I don’t plan to have it finished until I’ve polished off Oscar Mike, Arrivals, and a bunch of other projects first!
As the title would suggest, my third and fourth articles have just been published over at Universe Today. First off, let me assure people that I plan to post a link to UT in the near future so I don’t feel the need to do this every time a new article comes out. But since this is still a new experience to me, I naturally feel the need to share whenever a new one is published.
The first of the two, which was published on Monday, deals with a recent determination made about the source of the Moon’s water. This is based on research conducted by scientists over at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Back in 2009, India’s Chandrayaa-1 probe conducted a near-infrared survey of the Moon during a flyby that showed signs of surface water.
After years of speculation that claimed that the surface water – which exists strictly in icy form – was deposited there by meteors and comets, the National Museum team concluded that its actually formed by solar wind interacting with oxygen in the Moon’s surface dust. Quite the odd little occurrence; but then again, even Mercury appears to have icy spots on it’s molten surface.
The second is about a recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. While the latter was testing their Falcon 9 rockets, NASA filmed the performance using Infrared cameras. The information gleamed from this is helping SpaceX to develop their reusable rocket, but will also help NASA to figure out how they will land habitats and heavy equipment on the surface of Mars.
Sort of a win-win scenario, one that shows how the public and private sector are working together like never before to make the future of space exploration happen. And it’s another indication of just how serious NASA and its partners are in making a mission to Mars a reality.
In 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.
The 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.
Experts 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.
And 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.
At 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.
But 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:
Spacesuits have come a long way from their humble origins in the 1960s. But despite decades worth of innovation, the basic design remains the same – large, bulky, and limiting to the wearer’s range of movement. Hence why a number of researchers and scientists are looking to create suits that are snugger, more flexible, and more ergonomic. One such group hails from MIT, with a skin-tight design that’s sure to revolutionize the concept of spacesuits.
The team is led by Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who previewed her Biosuit – playfully described by some as a “spidersuit” – at the TEDWomen event, held in San Fransisco in December of 2013. Referred to as a “second skin” suit, the design incorporates flexible, lightweight material that is lined with “tiny, muscle-like coils.”
Speaking of the challenges of spacesuit design, and her team’s new concept for one, Dava Newman had the following to say in an interview with MIT news:
With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.
Granted, Newman’s design is the first form-fitting spacesuit concept to see the light of day. Back in the 1960’s, NASA began experimenting with a suit that was modeled on human skin, the result of which was the Space Activity Suit (SAS). Instead of an air-filled envelope, the SAS used a skin-tight rubber leotard that clung to astronaut like spandex, pressing in to protect the wearer from the vacuum of space by means of counter pressure.
For breathing, the suit had an inflatable bladder on the chest and the astronaut wore a simple helmet with an airtight ring seal to keep in pressure. This setup made for a much lighter, more flexible suit that was mechanically far simpler because the breathing system and a porous skin that removed the need for complex cooling systems. The snag with the SAS was that materials in the days of Apollo were much too primitive to make the design practical.
Little progress was made until Dava Newman and her team from MIT combined modern fabrics, computer modelling, and engineering techniques to produce the Biosuit. Though a far more practical counter-pressure suit than its predecessor, it was still plagued by one major drawback – the skintight apparatus was very difficult to put on. Solutions were proposed, such as a machine that would weave a new suit about the wearer when needed, but these were deemed impractical.
The new approach incorporates coils formed out of tightly packed, small-diameter springs made of a shape-memory alloy (SMA) into the suit fabric. Memory alloys are metals that can be bent or deformed, but when heated, return to their original shape. In this case, the nickel-titanium coils are formed into a tourniquet-like cuff that incorporates a length of heating wire. When a current is applied, the coil cinches up to provide the proper counter pressure needed for the Biosuit to work.
Bradley Holschuh, a post-doctorate in Newman’s lab, originally came up with the idea of a coil design. In the past, the big hurdle to second-skin spacesuits was how to get astronauts to squeeze in and out of the pressured, skintight suit. Holschuh’s breakthrough was to deploy shape-memory alloy as a technological end-around. To train the alloy, Holschuh wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight coils and heated them to 450º C (842º F) to fashion an original or “trained” shape.
When the coil cooled to room temperature, it could be stretched out, but when heated to 60º C (140º F), it shrank back into its original shape in what the MIT team compared to a self-closing buckle. As spokespersons from MIT explained:
The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.
In order to maintain it without continually heating the coils, however, the team needs to come up with some sort of a catch that will lock the coils in place rather than relying on a continuous supply of electricity and needlessly heating up the suit – yet it will still have to be easy to unfasten. Once Newman and her team find a solution to this problem, their suit could find other applications here on Earth.
As Holschuh explained, the applications for this technology go beyond the spacesuit, with applications ranging from the militarized to the medical. But for the moment, the intended purpose is keeping astronauts safe and comfortable:
You could [also] use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield. If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it… An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance. We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.
Considering the ambitious plans NASA and other government and private space agencies have for the near-future – exploring Mars, mining asteroids, building a settlement on the Moon, etc. – a next-generation spacesuit would certainly come in handy. With new launch systems and space capsules being introduced for just this purpose, it only makes sense that the most basic pieces of equipment get a refit as well.
And be sure to check out this video of Dava Newman showing her Biosuit at the TEDWomen conference last year:
The race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.
Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).
Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.
In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.
Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.
Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:
Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.
Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.
Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!