News from Space: Time Capsule to Mars

Time_capsule_to_mars1The selfie is an apparent obsession amongst today’s youth, snapping pictures of themselves and posting them to social media. But for just 99 cents, people can send a picture of themselves to the Red Planet as part of the Time Capsule to Mars (TC2M) – a student-led, crowdfunded project that aims to send three CubeSat microsatellites to the planet containing digital messages from tens of millions of people from all around around the world.

The objective of the TC2M – a project of Explore Mars – mission is to inspire people throughout the globe and allow them a personal connection with space exploration in the same spirit of the Apollo missions. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.

Mars_exploreWith the help and support of NASA, MIT, Stanford University and Deep Space Industries (among others), the student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.

In terms of sending media content, people currently have the option of uploading only images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months, TC2M claims that participants will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.

Time_capsule_to_mars2Emily Briere, a mechanical engineering student who is heading the project, explained their aim thusly:

We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission. The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success.

The data will be carried by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested. The data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is extremely dense and could last for millions of years, hence making it ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thrusterThe technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system. But the most interesting technology of all will be in the form of its engines.

The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS), a microthruster developed at MIT that is essentially size of a penny (pictured above). Each spacecraft will be powered by 40 thruster pairs, which will generate thrust using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The ionic liquid propellant is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe a scaled-up version may one day bring humans to Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars_thruster1The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.

The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserved uncorrupted on the surface of the planet for a long, long time. As for how they intend to keep it stored until the day that manned missions can retrieve it, there are a few options on the table.

Time_capsule_to_marsOne option that is being considered is to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point – meaning it won’t disintegrate upon entry – and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.

A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored in a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. And as it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.

Time_capsule_to_mars3The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017. You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website. And for those interested in possibly contributing, stay tuned to find out how and where you can donate once the crowdfunding campaign is up and running.

So in addition to showcasing new spacecraft, new media technologies, this project is also an attempt to stimulate interest in the new age of space exploration – an age characterized by public access and involvement. It’s also an opportunity to make your mark on the Red Planet, a mark which will someday (if all goes to plan) be uncovered by a new generation of explorers and settlers.

In the meantime, be sure to watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals:


Sources:
gizmag.com, timecapsuletomars.com, web.mit.edu

News from Space: Insight Lander and the LDSD

mars-insight-lander-labelledScientists have been staring at the surface of Mars for decades through high-powered telescopes. Only recently, and with the help of robotic missions, has anyone been able to look deeper. And with the success of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA is preparing to go deeper. The space agency just got official approval to begin construction of the InSight lander, which will be launched in spring 2016. While there, it’s going to explore the subsurface of Mars to see what’s down there.

Officially, the lander is known as the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and back in May, NASA passed the crucial mission final design review. The next step is to line up manufacturers and equipment partners to build the probe and get it to Mars on time. As with many deep space launches, the timing is incredibly important – if not launched at the right point in Earth’s orbit, the trip to Mars would be far too long.

Phoenix_landingUnlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on the Red Planet by way of a fascinating rocket-powered sky crane, the InSight will be a stationary probe more akin to the Phoenix lander. That probe was deployed to search the surface for signs of microbial life on Mars by collecting and analyzing soil samples. InSight, however, will not rely on a tiny shovel like Phoenix (pictured above) – it will have a fully articulating robotic arm equipped with burrowing instruments.

Also unlike its rover predecessors, once InSight sets down near the Martian equator, it will stay there for its entire two year mission – and possibly longer if it can hack it. That’s a much longer official mission duration than the Phoenix lander was designed for, meaning it’s going to need to endure some harsh conditions. This, in conjunction with InSight’s solar power system, made the equatorial region a preferable landing zone.

mars-core_bigFor the sake of its mission, the InSight lander will use a sensitive subsurface instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). This device will track ground motion transmitted through the interior of the planet caused by so-called “marsquakes” and distant meteor impacts. A separate heat flow analysis package will measure the heat radiating from the planet’s interior. From all of this, scientists hope to be able to shed some light on Mars early history and formation.

For instance, Earth’s larger size has kept its core hot and spinning for billions of years, which provides us with a protective magnetic field. By contrast, Mars cooled very quickly, so NASA scientists believe more data on the formation and early life of rocky planets will be preserved. The lander will also connect to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely track the position of Mars over time. A slight wobbling could indicate the red planet still has a small molten core.

If all goes to plan, InSight should arrive on Mars just six months after its launch in Spring 2016. Hopefully it will not only teach us about Mars’ past, but our own as well.

LDSDAfter the daring new type of landing that was performed with the Curiosity rover, NASA went back to the drawing table to come up with something even better. Their solution: the “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”, a saucer-shaped vehicle consisting of an inflating buffer that goes around the ship’s heat shield. It is hopes that this will help future spacecrafts to put on the brakes as they enter Mar’s atmosphere so they can make a soft, controlled landing.

Back in January and again in April, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tested the LDSD using a rocket sled. Earlier this month, the next phase was to take place, in the form of a high-altitude balloon that would take it to an altitude of over 36,600 meters (120,000 feet). Once there, the device was to be dropped from the balloon sideways until it reached a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Then the LDSD would inflate, and the teams on the ground would asses how it behaved.

LDSD_testUnfortunately, the test did not take place, as NASA lost its reserved time at the range in Hawaii where it was slated to go down. As Mark Adler, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project manager, explained:

There were six total opportunities to test the vehicle, and the delay of all six opportunities was caused by weather. We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet [4,500 meters to 18,230 meters] to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions.

In short, bad weather foiled any potential opportunity to conduct the test before their time ran out. And while officials don’t know when they will get another chance to book time at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, they’re hoping to start the testing near the end of June. NASA emphasized that the bad weather was quite unexpected, as the team had spent two years looking at wind conditions worldwide and determined Kauai was the best spot for testing their concept over the ocean.

If the technology works, NASA says it will be useful for landing heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. This is one of the challenges the agency must surmount if it launches human missions to the planet, which would require more equipment and living supplies than any of the rover or lander missions mounted so far. And if everything checks out, the testing goes as scheduled and the funding is available, NASA plans to use an LDSD on a spacecraft as early as 2018.

And in the meantime, check out this concept video of the LDSD, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:


Sources:
universetoday.com, (2), extremetech.com

News From Space: “FedEx” to the Moon

fedex-to-moon-google-x-lunarThe Moon has been quite the source of news lately. From NASA’s and the ESA’s planned efforts to build a settlement, to NASA and Google planning to send vegetation there, and China’s recent deployment of the Jade Rabbit rover, it seems that all the major space agencies of the world are eying the lunar surface with plans for eventual colonization.

What’s more, numerous private interests are looking to get in on the action, plotting everything from space tourism to courier services. One such company is Moon Express, a space startup that is competing for the Google Lunar X prize to develop a spacecraft that would one day be able to land on the lunar surface, move 500 meters, and send back two messages.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraftTheir craft is known as the MX-1, the company’s first robotic lander that was designed with the intent to deliver payloads to the lunar surface by 2015 and be able to transport precious minerals back. The privately held company, which is backed by billionaire Naveen Jain, unveiled the robot at the Autodesk’s University conference in Las Vegas.

According to Moon Express CEO Bob Richards, the MX-1 is very compact and could “fit basically inside of an SUV” trunk. The craft is unmanned, solar-powered, and uses hydrogen peroxide as rocket propellant. The fuel tanks are strapped to the vehicle’s underside, and serve two purposes. As Richards explains:

When the tanks are empty, they now act as a bumper. People are used to seeing landing gear on a spacecraft, but we didn’t need landing gear–the fuel tanks are the structure. It looks like something you’d land on a beach actually.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraft1To get to space, the craft is launched via rocket, and once deployed can navigate all by itself to the moon. And though small, the MX-1 is capable of carrying roughly 60 kilograms of payload. For its early missions, the startup plans to take part in NASA’s goal of delivering plants to the moon, including basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis (a sort of mustard-seed plant).

Additionally, the MX-1 will carry a small, black-and-gold telescope for a private company, which plans to set up the device as a moon cam on its surface, streaming live video back to Earth for all to watch. So in addition to China’s Jade Rabbit rover, which will be providing footage of the lunar surface, we can expect video to be provided by private interests as well.

fedex-to-moon-picBut in the long run, the aim of MoonEx is far more entrepreneurial: it plans to mine resources from the moon, seeing it as an untapped and very lucrative target. The trick will be developing the MX-1 into a craft that can deliver payloads to-and-from the moon, at larger scales. As Richards put it:

What’s there? Probably more platinum than there is in all the reserves on Earth. Pick your spice: silver, nickel, everything that we mine here on Earth is on the moon.

However, Moon Express doesn’t expect to return with any payloads until at least its third mission. It plans to launch its first mission to the moon in 2015. And if they win Google’s Lunar X Prize, they just might have all the investment capital they need to make it happen.

Source: fastcoexist.com, googlelunarxprize.org

News From Space… ShipTwo!

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flightVirgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson has been working tirelessly for over a decade now in the hopes of realizing the dream of privatized space travel. And earlier this month, his company once again made history with the second rocket-powered supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo craft. And in the process, it broke its previous records for speed and altitude, bringing it that much closer to its first commercial flight.

The flight test took place last Thursday at 8:00 am PDT, when the SS2 took off slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft from Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The SS2 was then released from the carrier at 14,000 meters (46,000 ft) and the rocket motor burned for 20 seconds, pushing the spacecraft to an altitude of 21,000 meters (69,000 ft) and a maximum speed of Mach 1.43 (1,752 km/h, 1,088 mph).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-6According to the company, the tourism spacecraft went through its full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time, including the deployment of its “feathering” re-entry mechanism at high altitude. This took place after engine shutdown and involved rotating the tail section to vertical, which slows the ship down and allows the shuttle to glide back home. The craft then landed in a controlled, unpowered glide at Mojave at 9:25 AM.

This flight builds on the success of the first rocket-powered supersonic flight that took place on April 29. Designed out of carbon composite, the space craft is powered by a hybrid rocket motor that uses solid rocket fuel and nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. Once test flights are complete, it will begin carrying six passengers on suborbital flights and will also have the option of deploying research equipment such as micro-satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-1Naturally, the CEO and founder, Sir Richard Branson, chose to mark the occasion with some choice words:

We couldn’t be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service. It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering re-entry system. It was this safety feature more than anything else that originally persuaded us that the overall design of the system was uniquely fit for purpose. Everything we have seen today just confirms that view.

Next year, if all goes well, Virgin Galactic will be conducting its first commercial flights, ferrying passengers into low orbit where they will experience several minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth. In this, they are joined by such groups as KLM, Golden Spike and SpaceX in attempting to create the first set of commercial space flights which will one day bring people to and from orbit, and possible even the Moon.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2And of course, Virgin Galactic was sure to capture the test flight on tape using a tail camera. It captures the engine burn, and then the near-vertical acceleration, as the craft puts planet Earth in its rear view and heads for atmo! Quite cool! Check it out:


Source: gizmag.com

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:


Sources:
bbc.co.uk, extremetech.com

News from Space: The Slingatron

slingatronPlacing things into orbit is something humanity has been doing since the 1940’s, beginning with Germany’s V2 Rockets, then giving way to artificial satellites like Sputnik in the 1950’s. These efforts really came into their own during the 1960’s and since, when manned missions reached high orbit and even the Moon. But despite all these  milestones, little has been done to address the problems of cost.

Ever since space travel began in earnest, the only way to send satellites, supplies and shuttle craft into orbit has been with rockets. Even at its cheapest, a space launch can still cost an estimated $2000 per pound per mission, due to the fact that the rockets employed are either destroyed or rendered unusable once they’ve completed their mission.

slingatron-20Attempts to create reusable launch systems, like the SpaceX Grasshopper, is one solution. But another involves “slinging” payloads into orbit, rather than launching them. That’s what HyperV Technologies Corp. of Chantilly, Virginia is hoping to achieve with their design for a “mechanical hypervelocity mass accelerator”, otherwise known as a “slingatron”.

Invented by Derek Tidman in the 1990s, the slingatron replaces rockets with a more sophisticated version of the sling. However, the principle differs somewhat in that the device uses something far more sophisticated than circumferential force. In the end, the name cyclotron might be more apt, which is a very simple particle accelerator.

 

slingatron-11Utilizing a vacuum tube and a series of magnetic/electostatic plates of opposing charges, an atomic particle (such as a proton) is introduced and sent back and forth as the polarity of the plates are flipped. As the frequency of the flipping is increased, the proton moved faster and faster in a series of spirals until it reaches the rim and shoots out a window at extremely high velocity.

The slingatron achieves the same result, but instead uses a spiral tube which gyrate on a series of flywheels along its length. As the slingatron gyrates, a projectile is introduced and the centripetal force pulls the projectile along. As the projectile slides through larger and larger turns of the spiral, the centripetal forces increase until the projectile shoots out the muzzle, traveling at several kilometers per second.

slingatron-13Ultimately, the goal here is to build a slingatron big enough to fire a projectile at velocities exceeding 7 km/s (25,000 km/h, 15,600 mph) to put it into orbit. With rapid turnarounds and thousands of launches per year while all of the launch system remains on Earth, the developers claim that the slingatron will offer lower costs for getting payloads into orbit.

However, there are weaknesses to this idea as well. For starters, any projectile going into space will also need to be fitted a small set of rockets for final orbit insertion and corrections. In addition, the G-forces involved in such launches would be tremendous – up to 60,000 times the force of gravity – which means it would be useless for sending up manned missions.

slingatron-15In the end, only the most solid state and hardened of satellites would have a chance of survival. The developers say that a larger slingatron would reduce the forces, but even with a reduction by a factor of 10,000, it would still be restricted to very robust cargoes. This makes it an attractive options for sending supplies into space, but not much else.

Still, given the costs associated with keeping the ISS supplied, and ensuring that future settlements in space have all the goods and equipment they need, a series of slingatrons may be a very viable solution in the not-to-distant future. Combined with concepts like the space penetrator, which fired bullet-like spaceships into space, the cost associated with space travel may be dropping substantially in coming decades.

All of this could add up to a great deal more space traffic coming to and from Earth in the not-too-distant future as well. I hope we have the foresight to construct some “space lanes” and keep them open! And in the meantime, enjoy this video interview of Dr. F. Douglas Witherspoon explaining the concept of the slingatron:

Source: gizmag.com

Apollo Rocket Engines Recovered from Seafloor

apollo_rocketThis past week, history was made when Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com) and his privately funded company, Bezos Expeditions, announced that they had successfully retrieved pieces of the very engines that had once launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. Using remotely operated vehicles and a series of slings, the crew members recovered enough parts to reconstruct the majority of two F-1 rocket boosters.

Bezos Expeditions announced last year that using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, that they had discovered the remains off the coast of Cape Canaveral off the coast of Florida. And this past Thursday, and with NASA’s help, Bezos located the fragments at a depth of almost 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) and began hauling them to the surface. Bezos claims they belonged to the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight, but further study and restoration will be needed before their identity can be confirmed.

apollo_rocket1Regardless, this is an exciting find, and the nature of the rocket boosters confirms that they were at least part of the Apollo program. Between 1968 and 1972, ten missions were conducted that flew out of the Kennedy Space Center, each one using the Saturn V rocket, that used five F-1 engines to boost them into orbit. Once the rockets had spent their fuel, they were detached and fell into the sea.

That means that approximately sixty five F-1 engines reside in the ocean off the coast of Florida. No telling which of those these ones could be, but it is hoped that serial numbers will be retrieved from the engines that can connect them to a specific Apollo mission. But regardless, this is an exciting find, and could not have come at a better time since NASA is looking to embark on a renewed era of exploration.

saturn-v-rocket-engines-recovered-ocean-installed_65442_600x450All told, Bezos and his team spent three weeks at sea, working almost 5 kilometers below the surface. During this time, Bezos claims that his team found so much:

We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program. We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.

Naturally, NASA was pretty impressed with the find as well. After the find was announced, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the following statement on behalf of the Agency:

This is a historic find and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit. We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display.

Apollo_11Needless to say, this is an exciting find, regardless of whether or not these rockets were the same ones that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. Naturally, I hope it is. I can think of no greater tribute to Armstrong’s memory so soon after his passing. I can imagine him looking down on this from the stars, where he now resides, with a big old smile!

And be sure to check out this video taken by the Bezos Expedition of the undersea find:

Source: nationalgeographic.com, universetoday.com