News from SpaceX: More Tests and the Coming Launch

spaceX_elonmuskElon Musk just can’t get enough of the spotlight lately! But that’s the price you pay for being a billionaire, innovator, genius-type person! And barely a week after announcing his idea for the Hyperloop high-speed train, it now seems that SpaceX is once again making the news, thanks to its latest test of the Grasshopper reusable rocket system as well as their planned launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

For those unfamiliar with the Grasshopper, this is a proposed reusable rocket system that Musk and SpaceX created with the hopes of bringing the costs associated with space launches down considerably. Since September 2012, the rocket has been put through successive tests, reaching higher and higher altitudes and safely making it back to the ground.

grasshopper_lateraldivertIn this latest test, the rocket successfully performed a “lateral divert test”. In all previous tests, the rocket lifted off vertically from a launch pad and then used its Merlin-1D engine to ease itself back down to the pad. However, in actual launch situations, the rocket wont simply be traveling up and down. When it comes time to land, a considerable amount of lateral steering will be necessary to line it back up with the launch site.

This is what the test, which took place on Tuesday, August 13th, amounted to. It began with the Grasshopper reaching its previously-achieved altitude of 250 meters, but then continued with the rocket moving an additional 100 m (328 ft) to one side. It was subsequently still able to land safely back at the center of the launch pad, compensating for its lateral diversion.

According to SpaceX: “The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.” What’s more, it places the company that much closer to the realization of a truly reusable rocket system, something which will drastically cut costs for future space missions.

And of course, they were sure to catch the entire test on video:


But equally important for this rising company that seeks to privatize space travel was the announcement that they have are moving ahead with plans to launch their Falcon Heavy rocket system by late 2013 or early 2014. At present, the Falcon is the most power rocket system in the world, overshadowed only by the now retired – but soon to be reserviced – Saturn V booster that put the Apollo astronauts into space and on the Moon.

spaceX-falcon9As Musk himself said of the rocket:

Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.

Fully loaded, the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry payloads of 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds or 53,070 kg) into orbit, and is made up of two engine stages. The first stage consists of a Falcon 9 rocket, with a nine-engine cores, followed by two additional nine-engine cores attached to either side. In addition, the Merlin engines have been upgraded to handle the additional weight, and are being tested at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas.

flacon-heavy-3At liftoff the 69.2m (227 ft) long Falcon Heavy will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the thrust of fifteen Boeing 747’s taking off at the same time. SpaceX claims that this gives the Falcon Heavy more than twice the performance of the next most powerful vehicle – the Delta IV Heavy operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX also says that with more than twice the payload of the Delta IV but at one third the cost, the Falcon Heavy sets a new world record in terms of economy at approximately US$1,000 per pound to orbit. This is in keeping with Musk’s promise to bring the associated costs of space travel and exploration down, hopefully one day to his goal of $500 per pound.

 

spaceX_solararrayWith the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft to orbit, SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy on the commercial market for US$80–$125 million, which compares to the $435 million per launch the U.S. Air Force has budgeted for four launches in 2012. So in effect, Musk’s company is offering a money-saving alternative to both the public and private sector.

For those fascinated by the long-term potential of space travel, this is certainly exciting news. By cutting the costs of placing satellites, supplies and people in orbit, many things are being made feasible that were previously impossible. This includes conducting more research in orbit, the ability to create space-based solar arrays (a very cool solution to our current power problems and the limitations of Earth-based solar power) and perhaps even begin work on a Moon settlement.

solar_system1Beyond that, there are the growing possibilities of commercial space travel, space tourism, and even setting our sights father afield with manned missions to the Moon, prospecting missions to the asteroid belt, and surveying probes to Jupiter’s Moons and to the very edge of the Solar System. Possibly even beyond…

Exciting times we live in, when the impossible is slowly becoming possible!

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), spacex.com

 

News from Space: Dream Chaser Begins Testing

dream_chaserEver since their Space Shuttle program was forcibly shut down in 2011, NASA has been forced to look to the private sector to restore their ability to put human beings into orbit from American soil. This consists of providing the seed money needed for companies to develop a new race of “space taxis”.  One such program is the Dream Chaser, a reusable shuttle that will fly astronauts into low Earth orbit (LEO) and to the International Space Station (ISS).

Much like a standard Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is designed to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and land on a shuttle landing facility. And after lengthy periods of research and development, the Dream Chaser is now moving forward with a series of ground tests at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California that will soon lead to dramatic aerial flight tests throughout 2013.

dream-chaser-testThis consisted of putting the shuttle together and then conducting a series of what’s known as “Pathfinding tow tests” on Dryden’s concrete runway. The purpose here is to validate the performance of the vehicles’ nose skid, brakes, tires and other systems to prove that it can safely land an astronaut crew after surviving the searing re-entry from Earth orbit. For the initial ground tests, the ship was pulled by a tow truck at 16 and 32 km/h (10 to 20 mph).

Later this month, the next leg of the test will consist of towing it up to speeds of 64 to 95 km and hour (40 to 60 mph). The next phases of testing will take place later this year in the form of airborne captive carry tests, where an Erickson Skycrane helicopter will fly the fuselage around to see how it holds up. Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) will follow to check the aerodynamic handling, which will consist of atmospheric drop tests in autonomous free flight mode.

dream-chaser-test1In an interview with Universe Today, Marc Sirangelo – Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman – spoke on record about the shuttle and where it is in terms of development:

It’s not outfitted for orbital flight. It is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests. The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight.

In short, the Dream Chaser has a long way to go, but the program shows great promise. And as already noted, they are not the only ones benefiting from this public-private agreement that seeks to develop commercial vehicles for the sake of kick starting space travel.

dream-chaser-dockedOther companies include Boeing and SpaceX, companies that were also awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap. All three have their own commercial vehicles under development, such as the Boeing CST-100, SpaceX’s Dragon, which are similarly designed to bring a crew of up to 7 astronauts to the ISS and docking with it for up to 6 months.

Dream_Chaser_launchBut of course, everything depends on NASA’s approved budget, which seems headed for steep cuts in excess of a billion dollars if a Republican dominated US House has its way.This is the third contract in NASA’s Phase 1 CCiCap contracts, who’s combined value is about $1.1 Billion and runs through March 2014. Phase 2 contract awards will eventually lead to actual flight units after a down selection to one or more of the companies. The first orbital flight test of the Dream Chaser is not expected before 2016 and could be further delayed if NASA’s commercial crew budget is again slashed by the Congress – as was done in the past few years.

But as William Gerstenmaier – NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington – indicated in a statement, the larger goal here is one of repatriation. As it stands, US astronauts are totally dependent on Russia’s Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS, which costs upwards of $70 million a trip. NASA hopes to change that by rekindling the “good old days” of space travel:

NASA centers around the country paved the way for 50 years of American human spaceflight, and they’re actively working with our partners to test innovative commercial space systems that will continue to ensure American leadership in exploration and discovery.

And I for one wish NASA luck. Lord knows thirty-years of post-Cold War budget cutbacks hasn’t been easy on them. And hitching rides into space above Cold War era rockets is not the best way of getting your astronauts into space either!

In the meantime, check out this concept video of the Dream Chaser in action, courtesy of the Sierra Nevada Corporation:


Source:
universetoday.com

New Anthology Sample: Arrivals!

Yuva_coverWow, its been awhile since I’ve posted anything from my group’s Yuva anthology. But that’s been the nature of my writing in these past few weeks, picking up projects I haven’t been working on lately and getting busy on them! And one of the fruits of these labors is the next installment in the short story “Arrivals”.

It came after I finished reading over my friends’ proposal for another story – Amber Iver’s and Goran Zidar’s “Ember Storm”. Somehow, reading another’s work always seem to help stoke the creative fires. And since “Arrivals” has been sitting on my desk without improvement for months now, I figured it was time to dust it off and make some headway!

YuvaAs the story that starts off part III of the anthology, “Arrivals” deals with the Second Wave of colonists who come to the planet of Yuva some 200 years after the first Terraformers set foot on the planet. Naturally, this new group of settlers is fare more advanced than the first, and has made the trip in less time thanks to the superiority of their next-generation, interstellar space ships.

The first segment of the story, which I posted back in March, dealt with the signal from these distant ships being received. This second part deals with the repercussions, as the Yuvan authorities come to see the ships in distant space and realize they will be arriving in orbit within two years time. Preparations need to be made, and the possibilities need to be addressed.

Will these new “arrivals” be friendly, or hostile? Are they simply people looking to join the first wave in creating a new home, or are they intent on pushing them out of the way? And just as importantly, what news and developments are they bringing with them from Earth, a world the Yuvan people have not heard from in over two centuries?

Planetary Research Council
Zarmina, Vogt

Anuja Padda tapped the table before her, loud enough so that everyone arranged in the circle would hear her and come to attention. Slowly, the many conversations that were passing between the board’s various members came to an end and they looked in her direction.

“Good morning, all. I thank you all for coming, especially those who joining us from overseas. I think we can all agree, we meet here under some rather extraordinary circumstances.”

There were mumbles of agreement from all around the table. Padda continued.

“And though I’m sure everyone has had a chance to review the information, I know my colleagues won’t fault me for reviewing our situation for the sake of posterity. Future generations will certainly appreciate it.”

That got a few snickers, and some people looking around the expanse of the room. From multiple angles, holorecording devices were capturing their every word, gesture and nuance. Someday, posterity would be looking back on the recordings made, and she was determined to give them a good show.

She cleared her throat and started from the beginning. “Less then twenty-four hours ago, a remote monitoring station on the western coast on Bonfils reported receiving some anomalous readings. The station assessed the readings and determined that they were in fact a transmission, which appeared to be coming from an extra-planetary source.”

She paused for emphasis. The next segment of her introduction required a few seconds grace, given the heady nature of it all.

“Ever since we arrived on this planet almost two centuries ago, we’ve entertained the notion that one day, another flotilla would follow in our wake, bringing a second wave of colonists to this world. Yesterday, we finally heard from them. And today, we will receive our first glimpse of them.”

The room’s lights suddenly went dark and a million specks of light slowly began to appear around them and grow in luminosity. The image that was now filling the Council meeting room could be seen in every Planetary Research office on the planet, the video feeds that were being captured from orbit streaming in through their own holodisplay devices.

Raising her hands and the image responded, the holodisplay reading the embedded sensors in her fingertips and responding to her manipulations. The image began to move and zoom in on a particular region of space. Holding her left hand steady to prevent lateral movement, she pulled her right hand back several times, increasing the magnification on the desired region. Three grey blobs appeared in this area, indiscernible and bland, until the image improved the resolution.

What they saw then instantly amazed and left them all speechless.

There, at the center of the room and hovering above their heads, were the mottled images of three large space-born craft. Their edges were sharp, their profiles long and contoured. There was no mistaking them for asteroids or any other kind of stellar mass.

“The image quality leaves something to be desired, but as you can see, we are detecting three ships flying in a wedge formation.”

“In other words,” said Councilor Moltke from the other side of the room, “a formation and disposition which matches our arrival exactly.”

Padda nodded, as did numerous others who continued to watch with awe. Within seconds, questions began to follow.

“How long until they get here?”

“Our scopes indicate that at their present velocity, they will arrive in orbit of Yuva in just over two years’ time.”

“What was the message they sent?”

“We don’t know yet, as it was encrypted using a rather complex cipher. But our technicians are sure we can decode it before long. Most likely, it’s a message of greeting.”

“The ships they are using, they’re faster than the ones that brought us here, yes?”

Padda turned to address this question, though it was more of an observation. Given their apparent distance and the timeframe she gave them, one could not help but draw that conclusion.

“Yes, they do appear to be using a form of propulsion technology that is superior to the one that powered the Avincenna, , and . This should come as no surprise, given that they’ve had well over a century to refine their methods.”

“And what of their intent?”

Padda looked around the room to find the source of the question. It appeared to be coming from the back wall, an alcove which was temporarily shaded due to the display of lights above. As the speaker stepped forward, she suppressed the urge to sigh and greeted them politely.

“Minister Astrakhan, this is a surprise. We weren’t expecting a visitor from Planetary Defense.”

“Perhaps if you had invited us to this session,” he said dryly, moving closer to the center of the room. “Nevertheless, my question still stands. What is their intent?”

Padda cleared her throat. “We can’t be sure at this time. However –”

“All we really know is that have a flotilla of ships arriving in our system from Earth. They are more advanced than we are, they have sent a message we can’t interpret, and yet we assume that they are here bringing a new wave of colonists who plan to peacefully integrate into our society.” He stopped and looked at the display; nodded, as if appraising the image and finding something within it that he approved of. “Have you even considered the possibility that their intent might be hostile?”

Padda shook her head. She tried to respond, but incredulity prevented her from finishing her sentence. “I’m sorry, I –”

“It’s not unheard of for new waves of colonists to displace those that came before them,” he continued. “Or have you forgotten your Earth history?”

Padda’s face went warm. “I haven’t forgotten anything sir.”

“Ah, then you recall the last time in Earth’s history when exploration and colonization took place? During the 18th century, many waves of Europeans arrived on the shores of what they liked to refer to as ‘The New World’. In the north, settlers landed in large numbers along the eastern shores, and after clearing the lands of its native inhabitants, subsequent waves of settlers triggered a series of conflicts. Colonies switched hands as their respective nations demanded the right to control the lands that were already spoken for.”

Padda once again suppressed a sigh.

“You’re saying you think these colonists are here to push us out? Or demand we submit to their authority?”

“And why not?” he asked, turning around to face her. If they do possess superior technology, what’s to stop them?”

Low murmurs began to erupt around the room, growing in intensity as more people joined the chorus. It wasn’t long before she could hear remarks being shouted in Astrakhan’s direction. All the while, he continued to look at Padda, a cold stare on his face.

All too quickly, she remembered exactly why she hadn’t invited him to this meeting. She knew he would be likely to raise some pessimistic possibilities. Unfortunately, not inviting him had had the effect of exacerbating the situation. Amidst their awe and distraction, he had managed to sneak in and stir the pot even more.

“Excuse me, everyone!” she said finally. Slowly, silence returned to the room. “Let us not get carried away with speculation. Minister Astrakhan, it is your contention that we do not know what these ships and their crews are doing here, correct?”

“It is not my contention, Madame Councilor. It is a fact.”

She smiled. “Then it would be foolish of us to be taking an alarmist position, would it not? If we are indeed ignorant, we shouldn’t allow such ignorance to manifest itself in fear.”

No one chuckled, but she felt the room respond favorably to her remark. The only one who didn’t appear impressed was Astrakhan. Despite his next words, his face registered no reaction to her rebuttal.

“Indeed, Councilor. It would be foolish to assume the worse anymore than it would to assume the best. Perhaps we can agree then that more information is needed?”

Padda nodded silently. She sensed there was more coming, something she wasn’t going to think too highly of.

“A good first step would be to decode the message they sent. I recall you saying it had a rather advanced encryption?”

“That is correct. A quantum encryption that will take some time to crack.”

“Good…” Astrakhan brought his hands together in front of him. “Then might I suggest Planetary Defense and Resources arrange for a collaborative effort. Between our two ministries, we could be able to dedicate all our quantum processors to the task and break their codes that much quicker.”

Padda was about to respond in the affirmative, but was interrupted by Moltke.

“A valid suggestion, Minister. But might I suggest that we extend that collaboration to include all major settlements? Between all of us, we have over a dozen processors that could be networked and dedicated to the task.”

Astrakhan quickly turned around to confront Moltke. “That would require breaching whatever security we have in place with this matter. The entire planet would be made aware of the arrival of these ships.”

Stepping into the light, Moltke spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. “They are likely to have heard of it already, Minister. If we want them to remain informed and calm on the subject, I can think of no better idea than to get in front of the story. Besides, if Planetary Defense is determined to learn of their intentions is what we want, then any measure that could accomplish this task sooner is in order.”

Astrakhan bristled noticeably, then turned back to look at Padda. His face was still painfully neutral, but she could tell from his body language that Moltke had ruffled his feathers.

“I shall have to speak to my superiors, and of course the Planetary Council will need to be informed, and will retain final approval of anything we propose.”

Padda smiled, inwardly suppressing a sense of sardonic joy. “Yes, they will, Minister. I commend you and my colleague on the sensible recommendations made here today.”

Astrakhan left without further incident. The mood lightened the moment he was gone and the rooms main doors slid shut behind him. Within seconds, murmurs began to erupt again. It wasn’t long before questions began to be asked as well.

“There’s the matter of their arrival,” said another Councilor. “What shall we do to prepare?”

“A welcoming committee?” said another.

“What about a series of shuttles going into orbit to greet them?” said Moltke.

Several heads turned to him and began muttering curiously.

“An orbital meet and greet?” said Padda. “Not a bad idea, but we would still be waiting a full two years before they would be close enough for our standard aerospace jets to reach them.”

“Perhaps then we should prepare something with greater range and capability,” Council Mond suggested, their resident expert on aerospace. “If they are going to be two years in coming, we could dedicate the next year to developing shuttles that could meet them half way.” Everyone in the room began to voice their approval of this idea. Mond took that as an invitation to continue. “Until now, we’ve had no reason to build ships that were built specifically for space travel. But between the orbital stations and our resources here on the surface, we have the capability to build a series of shuttles that could be sent from orbit to meet them in space before they reach our world.

This produced additional hums and vocalizations of assent. Eventually, numerous people looked to Padda again to see if she agreed. After a brief consideration, she nodded approvingly.

“A good idea,” she said. “And one I’m sure Minister Astrakhan will be suggesting himself. No doubt he would emphasize that we need to get a look at these people before we allow them to set foot on our planet.”

“Looks like Planetary Defense and Research will be collaborating on something else.”

Everyone chuckled at Moltke’s remark.

Eyes on the Sky: The X-51A Goes Hypersonic!

x-51aWhen it comes to high-tech flight, hypersonic is the undisputed way of the future. Not only is it the next logical step in the long chain from the Wright Brothers to supersonic flight (which humanity achieved in 1947), it is sort of a prerequisite in order for commercial space travel to take place. And on May 1st, the US Air Force tested its latest concept vehicle for going hypersonic, known as the X-51A Waverider.

The test took place at Edwards Air Force Base in California, when a B-52H Stratofortress carried the scramjet to a height of 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and then released it. A solid rocket booster then kicked in and brought the X-51A to a speed of Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds. The solid rocket booster then separated and the X-51A’s air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet – or scramjet – engine pushed it up the rest of the way to Mach 5.1 and up to an altitude of 18,300 meters (60,000 feet).

x-51a_specsFour minutes later, its fuel supply was spent and the scramjet nosed down, finally crashing (as planned) into the Pacific Ocean. The previous air speed record for manned flight is just under Mach 3, making this a rather large leap forward. In addition, in just over six minutes, the scramjet traveled over 425 kilometers (264 miles), making it the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever.

In addition to being record-breaking, it also tested out an important concept which may soon get more of us here on Earth into orbit. Considering the cost of sending a single rocket into space, concepts for a reusable space craft that could break the Earth’s gravitational pull, fly itself into high-earth orbit, and then land again have been under review for some time. All that was missing was an engine that could accomplish the kind’s of speeds needed without relying on criminally-fuel efficient rockets.

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesNeedless to say, this is a difficult task, since maintaining airspeed above mach 2 is a serious challenge. This is due to the fact that at these speeds, its very difficult for jet engines to continue to intake air. What makes the X-51A special is the fact that it has no moving parts. Whereas scramjets of the past used hydrogen fuel which would be injected into a combustion chamber and mixed with incoming air, the X-51A differs in that it uses a hydrocarbon fuel as sort of a pilot light, effectively“lighting a match in a hurricane.”

This apparently makes more sense logistically, and therefore could allow the technology to be applied on a broader scale. As it stands, this test involved the last of four X-51As to be constructed, the previous tests having taken place between 2004 and 2012. No plans exist for the construction of future X-51A vehicles, perhaps because the program cost a staggering $300 million. Nevertheless, Air Force officials indicated that the Waverider has left a valuable legacy.

And certainly think so! Not only has the Waverider established a new air speed record, and set a hypersonic distance record, it has also taken an important step as far as the next generation of space flight is concerned. In time, and perhaps in conjunction with rocket boosters, we could be seeing commercial spacecraft capable of breaking the atmosphere very soon.

Think of it, aerospace flights making deliveries to the ISS, and perhaps even beyond… Also, check out the video of the X-51A below making it’s historic, record-breaking flight:


Sources:
singularityhub.com, space.com

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.

MAVEN_DVD-580x384

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.

Sources: cbc.ca, universetoday.com, lasp.colorado.edu

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!

daedalus_starship_630pxSource: Extreme.tech

News from Space: New Map of the Universe Confirms The Big Bang!

planckAfter 15 months of observing deep space, scientists with the European Space Agency Planck mission have generated a massive heat map of the entire universe.The “heat map”, as its called, looks at the oldest light in the universe and then uses the data to extrapolate the universe’s age, the amount of matter held within, and the rate of its expansion. And as usual, what they’ve found was simultaneously reassuring and startling.

When we look at the universe through a thermal imaging system, what we see is a mottled light show caused by cosmic background radiation. This radiation is essentially the afterglow of the Universe’s birth, and is generally seen to be smooth and uniform. This new map, however, provides a glimpse of the tiny temperature fluctuations that were imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 370,000 years old.

big_bangSince it takes light so long to travel from one end of the universe to the other, scientists can tell – using red shift and other methods – how old the light is, and hence get a glimpse at what the universe looked like when the light was first emitted. For example, if a galaxy several billion light years away appears to be dwarfish and misshapen by our standards, it’s an indication that this is what galaxies looked like several billion years ago, when they were in the process of formation.

Hence, like archaeologists sifting through sand to find fossil records of what happened in the past, scientists believe this map reveals a sort of fossil imprint left by the state of the universe just 10 nano-nano-nano-nano seconds after the Big Bang. The splotches in the Planck map represent the seeds from which the stars and galaxies formed. As is heat-map tradition, the reds and oranges signify warmer temperatures of the universe, while light and dark blues signify cooler temperatures.universe

The cooler temperatures came about because those were spots where matter was once concentrated, but with the help of gravity, collapsed to form galaxies and stars. Using the map, astronomers discovered that there is more matter clogging up the universe than we previously thought, at around 31.7%, while there’s less dark energy floating around, at around 68.3%. This shift in matter to energy ratio also indicates that the universe is expanding slower than previously though, which requires an update on its estimated age.

All told, the universe is now believed to be a healthy 13.82 billion years old. That wrinkles my brain! And also of interest is the fact that this would appear to confirm the Big Bang Theory. Though widely considered to be scientific canon, there are those who dispute this creation model of the universe and argue more complex ideas, such as the “Steady State Theory” (otherwise known as the “Theory of Continuous Creation”).

24499main_MM_Image_Feature_49_rs4In this scenario, the majority of matter in the universe was not created in a single event, but gradually by several smaller ones. What’s more, the universe will not inevitable contract back in on itself, leading to a “Big Crunch”, but will instead continue to expand until all the stars have either died out or become black holes. As Krzysztof Gorski, a member of the Planck team with JPL, put it:

This is a treasury of scientific data. We are very excited with the results. We find an early universe that is considerably less rigged and more random than other, more complex models. We think they’ll be facing a dead-end.

Martin White, a Planck project scientist with the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explained further. According to White, the map shows how matter scattered throughout the universe with its associated gravity subtly bends and absorbs light, “making it wiggle to and fro.” As he went on to say:

The Planck map shows the impact of all matter back to the edge of the Universe. It’s not just a pretty picture. Our theories on how matter forms and how the Universe formed match spectacularly to this new data.

planck_satThe Planck space probe, which launched in 2009 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, is a European Space Agency mission with significant contribution from NASA. The two-ton spacecraft gathers the ancient glow of the Universe’s beginning from a vantage more than a million and a half kilometers from Earth. This is not the first map produced by Planck; in 2010, it created an all-sky radiation map which scientists, using supercomputers, removed all interfering background light from to get a clear view at the deep background of the stars.

However, this is the first time any satellite has been able to picture the background radiation of the universe with such high resolution. The variation in light captured by Planck’s instruments was less than 1/100 millionth of a degree, requiring the most sensitive equipment and the contrast. So whereas cosmic radiation has appeared uniform or with only slight variations in the past, scientists are now able to see even the slightest changes, which is intrinsic to their work.planck-attnotated-580x372

So in summary, we have learned that the universe is a little older than previously expected, and that it most certainly was created in a single, chaotic event known as the Big Bang. Far from dispelling the greater mysteries, confirming these theories is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still the grandiose mystery of how all the fundamental laws such as gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism work together.

Ah, and let’s not forget the question of what transpires beneath the veil of an even horizon (aka. a Black Hole), and whether or not there is such a thing as a gateway in space and time. Finally, there’s the age old question of whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere out there, or life of any kind. But given the infinite number of stars, planets and possibilities that the universe provides, it almost surely does!

And I suppose there’s also that persistent nagging question we all wonder when we look up at the stars. Will we ever be able to get out there and take a closer look? I for one like to think so, and that it’s just a matter of time!

To boldly go!
To boldly go!

Sources: universetoday.com, (2), extremetech.com, bbc.co.uk

Manned Mars Mission Update!

Mars_landerMillionaire and space enthusiast Dennis Tito surprised the world with his announcement that he plans to fund a couple’s expedition to Mars. Apparently, the trip is planned to take place in 2018 during a conjunction of our planet with Mars, will take 501 days, and will involve sending a married couple in a capsule roughly the size of a Winnebago. But as time goes on, more news is trickling out of the “Inspiration Mars” program, and some of it is raising eyebrows.

For example, there’s the news that the Mars capsule will involve a rather interesting form of radiation shielding… made of feces. You read that right, the capsule will contain shielding composed of human feces (among other things) that will shield the couple inside from harmful cosmic radiation. But before people begin visualizing some ugly, creepy concoction, let me assure them that this concept is not as unusual as it sounds.

tito-mars-mission-conceptWhen it comes right down to it, this is the greatest health threat the people who go will face, followed shortly thereafter by muscle atrophy, boredom and cramped conditions. And rather than line the capsule with expensive and heavy metals, such as lead, the engineers designing the Inspiration Mars capsule thought they might kill two birds with one stone.

According to Taber MacCallum, co-founder and CEO of the Paragon Space Development Corporation and member of the Inspiration Mars team, explained that the idea had to do with waste recycling and storage. Since the couple will be eating, drinking and defecating within the capsule for a full 501 days, the waste has to go somewhere.

Mars_orbitThe proposed solution? Put it in the walls, along with food and liquid waste, and then desiccate it all to recycle the water. Or, as MacCallum put it:

It’s a little queasy sounding, but there’s no place for that material to go, and it makes great radiation shielding… Dehydrate them as much as possible, because we need to get the water back. Those solid waste products get put into a bag, put right back against the wall.

But to be fair, this proposal is not exactly new. In fact, the idea was mentioned back in 2011 by Michael Flynn, a life support engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, who proposed using urine and feces to shield space stations. Packing for Mars author Mary Roach The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxyalso mentioned it in a 2011 edition of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is also working out the nuts and bolts of this concept under the name of “Water Walls Architecture”.

Source_croppedWater, MacCallum explained, is the key ingredient here, since it serves as a better radiation shield than metal. It’s the nuclei of atoms that block the radiation you see, and water contains more atoms (and therefore more nuclei) per volume than metal does. Food and waste also provide good radiation shielding, and because the food blocks rather than absorbs the radiation, it will remain safe to eat.

Naturally, McCallum was sure to note that they are still working out some of the logistical problems. For one, they still need to figure out how best to keep the Mars-bound couple from experiencing too many nasty sights and smells on their journey.

Gotta admit, this isn’t something you think about when you hear the word “space travel” do you? But then again, you have to account for things like this. Until people can survive without consuming food and water, and expelling waste, long-term space missions will have to figure out what to do about all the dirty, ugly business people get into!

Sources: newscientist.com, IO9

More Plans to Colonize Mars!

mars_lifeFolks may recognize the name SpaceX, the private aerospace company that in May of last year launched a module into space to resupply  the International Space Station. An historic occasion, that was the first time a private spacecraft has has ever docked with the ISS, and signaled a growing trend in the development in commercial space travel. Well, it seems that the company’s founder has more ambitious plans now.

Yes, in a bid to make sure his company is not left behind in any future space endeavors, CEO and billionaire Elon Musk has announced plans to colonize the Red Planet with a population of 80,000. The announcement came back in November at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, where Musk appeared to receive the Society’s gold medal for helping to advance the commercial space industry.

The first phase of the program, which is contingent on the development of reusable rocket that can take off and land vertically, would start off modestly with only a handful of explorers leaving Earth at a time. To make it happen, SpaceX has already started to work on their next-generation reusable Falcon 9 rocket, known as “Grasshopper”. This rocket has already made two short flights, including one in which it reached a height of 2 meters (6 feet), and another in which it leaped to a height of  5.4 meters (17.7 feet). Small beginnings, as they say!

The projected cost for each colonist looking to make the trip would be roughly $500,000. In short, those who are not rich or extremely adventurous need not apply! What’s more, he estimated that the entire program would cost about $36 billion, an inevitable expense to set up the initial infrastructure and transport. But once that is done, he believes enough people will be interested and find it within their means that the venture will pay for itself.

In an interview with Space.com, Musk’s vision for sending people to Mars was described as follows:

“Accompanying the founders of the new Mars colony would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars’ atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet’s subsurface water ice.

“The Red Planet pioneers would also take construction materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars’ atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil. As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, the big rocket would start to transport more people and fewer supplies and equipment.”

So save your pennies and prepare for the day when tickets go on sale! Hard to say exactly when that will be, but chances are, it will be either feasible or abandoned by 2030. That’s when NASA plans to mount manned missions to the Red Planet. And like I said, men like Musk don’t want to be left behind!

Source: space.com

The Future is Here: NASA’s Ion Drive!

Ion_thruster_nasaWell, it seems Star Trek might have gotten another one right. In addition to warp travel, computer pads, and the possibility of a real-life star ship Enterprise being built by 2030, it seems that ion engines that can propel ships on interplanetary missions are also possible. As a staple of many science fiction franchises, many have wondered whether or not the technology would ever be truly feasible.

For years, NASA has been experimenting with various ionic propulsion drives. But with this latest announcement, they’ve not only indicated success, but broke a world record. On Dec 28th, in one of the last news stories of the year, NASA announced that their Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) has operated continually for over 43,000 hours (just shy of five years). Since ion thrusters are believed to be one of the best ways to power long-term deep-space missions, this is a big step towards powering NASA’s next-gen spacecraft.

Electrostatic_ion_thruster-en.svg_As the name suggests, ion thrusters work by firing ions (charged atoms or molecules) out of a nozzle at high speed. In the case of NEXT, Xenon (a noble gas) is squirted into a chamber where its molecules are charged via an electron gun, creating a plasma of negative and positive ions. The positive ions diffuse to the back of the chamber, where high-charged accelerator grids grabs them and propel them out of the engine, creating thrust.

The upside of such a thruster lies in its fuel efficiency, in that it uses 10-12 times less fuel than a regular chemical thruster. Unfortunately, the downside lies in the thrust, again relative to its chemical counterparts. Due to this, NASA scientists calculated that an ion engine needs to operate continuously for a minimum of 10,000 hours (roughly a year) to slowly accelerate a spacecraft to speeds necessary to reach the asteroid belt or beyond.

asteroidsWith this test, NASA proved that their new ion thruster would not only be able to propel a spaceship to the asteroid belt, but to the outer planets and their moons as well. That’s good news for people looking forward to visiting Ganymede, Europa, Titan, and maybe even the Kuiper Belt. What’s more, the maximum speed of the spacecraft would be in the region of  321,000 km/h (200,000 mph).

Back in 2011, NASA put out a request-for-proposals for a test mission that will likely use a NEXT engine. Presumably, following this successful engine test, we might be hearing more about this in the near future. And, now that the proof in the pudding, other space agencies are likely to unveil their own prototypes for ion engines, and even equipping the next generation of space craft with them.

Asteroid mining? Mars colonization? Off-world resource and manufacturing allocation? Looks like we got ourselves the means to get us there! Oh, and Star Trek nerds? Looks like you guys got your nacelles! Full impulse ahead!

asteroid_beltSource: Extremtech.com, NASA.org