It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.
Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.
Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.
There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.
I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.
The last decade has seen NASA change tack quite a few times, mostly under the direction of different presidents who had very different ideas about how the venerable agency should function. Much of it came in the form of a lot of hand wringing about whether or not we should return to the Moon or simply go straight to Mars, with the current strategy to put NASA astronauts on our red sister sometime in the 2030s (although they might be too late if SpaceX has their way). This new direction included sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 in order to vet some of the technology required to eventually send those astronauts to Mars and NASA has just detailed what that mission will be.
The initial mission was going to attempt to capture an entire asteroid, one around 8m in diameter, using an inflatable cylinder that would envelope the asteroid and then return it to a cis-lunar (between the Earth and the Moon) orbit. Now this wouldn’t have been a massive asteroid, probably on the order of 8m or so, but it still would have been a pretty massive endeavour to bring it back to a closer orbit. However there was another potential option for this mission: instead of retrieving the whole asteroid a probe would instead pluck a small boulder from the surface of a much larger asteroid and then return that back to the cis-lunar orbit. NASA announced today that the second option would be the one they’d pursue going forward with the mission timeframe still slated for sometime in the next decade.
Interestingly the second option is significantly more expensive, to the tune of $100 million, however the technology that will be developed to support it was seen as being of much more benefit than the other mission. Once a candidate asteroid has been selected the craft will be launched into orbit around it where it will identify and select a boulder for retrieval. It will then land on the boulder, capture it, and then lift it back off into orbit around the asteroid again. The craft will remain there for some time afterwards to see if the idea of a gravity tractor craft could work to divert a potentially dangerous asteroid from colliding with Earth. Then, depending on how successful that was, the craft will either remain there a little longer or begin the journey back towards earth, it’s newly captured asteroid boulder in tow. Then astronauts from Earth will embark on a month long mission to travel to the asteroid, study it and then potentially bring it (or at least samples) back to Earth.
It’s an ambitious mission but one that will be the proving ground for the vast majority of technologies required to get humans to Mars. Whilst we’ve learnt a lot about long duration spaceflights thanks to the International Space Station there’s a lot more we need to develop in order to support the same duration flights away from the protection of our Earth. Specifically this relates to the radiation shielding requirement (something which still doesn’t have a great solution) but there’s also numerous other questions that will need to be answered before we launch a craft towards Mars. A month to a nearby asteroid fragment might not sound like much but it will be another giant leap forward technology wise.
NASA is stil a far cry from its heydays during the cold war but its starting to rekindle that explorer spirit that drove them to achieve such great things all those years ago. Opting for the more ambitious mission profile means that our understanding will be more greatly increased as a result, hopefully fueling further exploration with a view to us one day becoming a multi-planet species. We’re still a while away from seeing this happen but it’s so good to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Establishing lunar colonies seems like the next logical step, it’s our closest celestial body after all, however it might surprise you to learn that doing that might in fact be a lot harder than establishing a similarly sized colony on Venus or Mars. Without an atmosphere to speak of our Moon’s surface is an incredibly harsh place with the full brunt of our sun’s radiation bearing down on it. That’s only half the problem too as since the day/night cycles last 2 weeks you’ll spend half your time in perpetual darkness at temperatures fast approaching absolute zero. There are ways around it however and recent research has led to some rather interesting prospects.
Whilst the surface of the Moon might be unforgiving going just a little bit below the surface negates many of the more undesirable aspects. Drilling into the surface is one option however that’s incredibly resource intensive, especially when you consider that all the gear required to do said drilling would need to be sent from Earth. The alternative is to use structures that are already present on the Moon such as caverns and other natural structures. We know that these kinds of formations are already present on the Moon thanks to the high resolution imagery and gravity mapping we’ve done (the Moon’s gravity field is surprisingly non-uniform) but just how big these structures could be has remained somewhat of a mystery.
Researchers at Purdue university decided to investigate just how big structures like these could be, specifically looking at how big lava tubes could get if they existed on the Moon. During its formation, which would have happened when a large object collided with the then primordial Earth, the surface of the Moon would have been ablaze with volcanic activity. However due to its much smaller size that activity has long since ceased but it would have still left behind the tell tale structures of its more tumultuous history. The researchers then modelled how big these tubes could have gotten given the conditions present on the Moon and came up with a rather intriguing discovery: they’d be huge.
When you see the outcome of the research it feels like an obvious conclusion, of course they’d be bigger since there’s less gravity, but the fact that they’re an order of magnitude bigger than what we’d see on Earth is pretty astounding. The picture above gives you some sense of scale for these potential structures, able to fit several entire cities within them with an incredible amount of room to spare. Whilst using such structures as a basis for a future lunar colony presents a whole host of challenges it does open up the possibility to the Moon having much more usable space than we first thought.
Getting humans anywhere in the solar system is messy, difficult and above all expensive. We creatures of flesh and bone have an inordinate amount of requirements that need to be met so we don’t cark it, necessitating a whole bunch of things that our robotic counterparts simply don’t need.Thus manned space exploration missions aren’t usually at the forefront of science, instead they’re done to win over the hearts and minds of the people, inspiring the next generation to continue with these endeavours. I think this is why many of the general public wanted Mars One to succeed even though it was clear from the onset that the project would never deliver on its lofty goals.
Mars One was announced almost 2 years ago amid a flurry of other Mars related news, something which I’m sure helped elevate its profile above what it would have been otherwise. The idea plays heavily on the romanticized notion of the frontier, that us regular people could be a part of something greater by living at the very edge of human existence. The project made no secret that it was going to be a one way trip and so it took on this idea that it was some kind of noble sacrifice for greater good of humankind. Of course that idea kind of fell apart when they said that the mission would be mostly funded through a reality television series that they’d film as part of it. Not that this discouraged anyone as apparently tens of thousands of people applied for it.
I’ve said before that a one way trip to Mars isn’t a noble idea at all, being selfish more than anything, and the Mars One mission played into the egotistical mindset required by someone who’d want to undertake this mission. Sure there might be some good science done along the way however the way that Mars One was approaching it, which was by using external contractors to do the majority of the heavy lifting, wouldn’t be driving anything forward that wasn’t already well underway. That, coupled with the fact that they really didn’t seem to have any revenue source apart from the TV series (which they never announced a timeline for), meant that it was looking pretty sketchy even before the project got seriously underway.
Now we’ve had one of the top 100 finalists break their silence on the process and the insights he’s given have been pretty damning. It seems that the selection process hasn’t been that rigorous at all with the only things being required so far being the initial video, a questionnaire and a quick Skype call with the chief medical officer. Worst still it appears that making it into the top 100 could be as easy as just giving them money as the selection process is heavily based off the number of points a candidate has which, funnily enough, can be acquire by purchasing Mars One merchandise. The final nail in the coffin is that Mars One appears to have lost its contract with the media company that was going to do the TV series, something which was supposed to bring them the bulk of the $6 billion they’d need.
In all honesty it shouldn’t be that surprising as the writing was on the wall for Mars One from the day it was first announced. I’m always willing to be proven wrong , heck if they managed to pull this off I would’ve shouted their success from the rooftops, but the more we find out about Mars One the less likely it appears that they’ll ever get anything off Earth. Mars One is yet to comment on these recent revelations and I doubt they will as they’re likely hoping everyone will just write this off as one disgruntled participant. I for one am not and I hope you, dear reader, will heed his words carefully.
Whenever I think of a tidally locked planet, like say Mercury, the only image that comes to mind is one that is barren of all life. You see for tidally locked systems the face of the smaller body is always pointing towards the larger one, like our Moon is towards Earth. For planets and suns this means that the surface of the tidally locked planet would typically turn into an inferno with the other side becoming a frigid wasteland, both devoid of any kind of life. However new research shows that these planets might not be the lifeless rocks we once thought them to be and, in fact, they could be far more Earthlike than we previously thought.
Scientists have long theorized that planets of this nature could potentially harbour a habitable band around their terminator, a tenuous strip that exists between the freezing depths of the cold side and the furnace of the hot side. Such a planet wouldn’t have the day/night cycles that we’re accustomed to however and it would be likely that any life that evolved there would have adapted to the permanent daylight. There’d also be some pretty extreme winds to contend with as well due to the massive differences in temperature although how severe they were would be heavily dependent on the thickness of the atmosphere. Still it’s possible that that little band could harbor all sorts of life, despite the conditions that bookended its environment.
However there’s another theory that states that these kinds of planets might not be the one sided hotbeds that we initially thought them to be. Instead of being fully tidally locked with their parent star planets like this might actually still rotate thanks to the heavy winds that would whip across their surface. These winds would push against the planets surface, giving it enough rotation to overcome the tidal locking caused by the parent star’s gravity. There’s actually an example of this within our own solar system: Venus which by all rights should be tidally locked to our Sun. However it’s not although it’s extremely long days and retrograde rotation (it spins the opposite way to every other planet) hints at the fact that its rotation is caused by forces that a different to that from every other planet.
Counterintuitively it seems that Venus’ extremely thick atmosphere might be working against it in this regard as the modelling done shows that planets with thinner atmospheres would actually experience a higher rotational rate. This means that an Earthlike planet that should be tidally locked would likely not be and the resulting motion would be enough to make the majority of the planet habitable. In turn this would mean that many of the supposedly tidally locked planets we’ve discovered could actually turn out to be habitable candidates.
Whilst these are just beautiful models for now they can hopefully drive the requirements for future craft and observatories here on Earth that will be able to look for the signatures of these kinds of planets. Considering that our detection methods are currently skewed towards detecting planets that are close to their parent stars this will mean a much greater hit rate for habitable candidates, providing a wealth of data to validate against. Whether we’ll be able to get some direct observations of such planets within the next century or more is a question we won’t likely have an answer to soon, but hopefully one day we will.
The European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) is an interesting platform, ostensibly sharing some inspiration from the United States Air Force’s X-37B but with a very different purpose in mind. The IXV is set to be more of a general purpose craft, one that’s capable of testing new space technologies and running experiments that might not otherwise be feasible. It’s also set to be ESA’s first fully automated craft that’s capable of re-entry, an incredible technological feat that will inevitably find its way into other craft around the world. Today marks the completion of the IXV’s maiden flight, completing a sub-orbital journey that was, by all accounts, wildly successful.
This flight was meant to be conducted towards the end of last year but was delayed due to the novel launch profile that the IXV flight required, something which the launch system wasn’t typically used for. The mission profile remained the same however, serving as a shakedown of all the key systems as well as providing a wealth of flight data around how all the systems functioned during the flight. This included things such as the automated guidance system, avionics and the thermal shielding that coats the bottom of the craft. The total flight time was approximately 100 minutes with the craft making a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean where it was retrieved by a recovery craft (pictured above).
Whilst the IXV platform is likely to see many more launches in the future it’s actually a stepping stone between a previous craft, the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator (ARD), and a future space plane called the Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE). The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a fully reusable craft that the ESA can use for its missions in space and judging by the design of the IXV it’s a safe bet that it will likely end up looking something like the Space Shuttle. The IXV will never take human passengers to orbit, it’s simply too small to accomplish that feat, however much of the technology used to create it could be easily repurposed to a man rated craft.
I think the ESA has the right approach when it comes to developing these craft, opting for smaller, purpose built craft rather than a jack-of-all trades type which, as we’ve seen in the past, often results in complexity and cost. The total cost of the IXV craft (excluding the launcher) came out to a total of $170 million which is actually cheaper than the X-37B by a small margin. It will be interesting to see if the ESA gets as much use out of their IXV though as whilst it’s a reusable craft I haven’t heard talk of any further flights being planned anytime soon.
It’s great to see multiple nations pursuing novel ways of travelling to and from space as the increasing number of options means that there’s more and more opportunities for us to do work out there in the infinite void. The IXV might not become the iconic craft that it emulates but it will hopefully be the platform that enables the ESA to extend their capabilities far beyond their current station. The next few years are going to be ones of envelope pushing for the ESA and I, for one, am excited to see what they can accomplish.
Moving things between planets is a costly exercise no matter which way you cut it. Whilst we’ve come up with some rather ingenious ideas for doing things efficiently, like gravity assists and ion thrusters, these things can only take us so far and the trade offs usually come in the form of extended duration. For our robotic probes this is a no brainer as machines are more than happy to while away the time in space whilst the fleshy counterparts do their bits back here on Earth. For sending humans (and larger payloads) however these trade offs are less than ideal, especially if you want to do round trips in a reasonable time frame. Thus we have always been on the quest to find better ways to sling ourselves around the universe and NASA has committed to investigating an idea which has been dormant for decades.
NASA has been charged with the task of getting humans to Mars by sometime in the 2030s, something which shouldn’t sound like an ambitious feat (but it is, thanks to the budget they’ve got to work with). There are several technical hurdles that need to be overcome before this can occur not least of which is developing a launch system which will be able to get them there in a relatively short timespan. Primarily this is a function of the resources required to keep astronauts alive and functioning in space for that length of time without the continual support of launches from home. Current chemical propulsion will get us there in about 6 months which, whilst feasible, still means that any mission to there would take over a year. One kind of propulsion that could cut that time down significantly is Nuclear Thermal which NASA has investigated in the past.
There are numerous types of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) however the one that’s showing the most promise, in terms of feasibility and power output, is the Gas Core Reactor. Mostly this comes from the designs high specific impulse which allows it to generate an incredible amount of thrust from a small amount of propellant which would prove invaluable for decreasing mission duration. Such designs were previously explored as part of the NERVA program back in the 1970s however it was cancelled when the supporting mission to Mars was cancelled. However with another Mars mission back on the books NASA has begun investigating the technology again as part of the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (NTREES) at their Huntsville facility.
NTP systems likely wouldn’t be used for the initial launch instead they’d form part of the later stage to be used once the craft had made it to space. This negates many of the potential negative aspects like radioactive material being dispersed into the atmosphere and would allow for some concessions in the designs to increase efficiency. Several potential craft have been drafted (including the one pictured above) which use this idea to significantly reduce travel times between planets or, in the case of supply missions, dramatically increase their effective payload. Whether any of these will see the light of day is up to the researchers and mission planners at NASA but there are few competing designs that provide as many benefits as the nuclear options do.
It’s good to see NASA pursuing alternative ideas like this as they could one day become the key technology for humanity to spread its presence further into our universe. The decades of chemical based rocketry that we have behind us have been very fruitful but we’re fast approaching the limitations of that technology and we need to be looking further ahead if we want to further our ambitions. With NASA (and others) investigating this technology I’m confident we’ll see it soon.
The Mars Curse is the term used to describe the inordinately high failure rate for missions to our red celestial sister, particularly those that dare to touch the surface. It’s an inherently complicated mission as there are innumerable things that need to be taken into account in order to get something on the surface and a problem with any one of the systems can result in a total mission failure. One such mission that fell prey to this was the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2, a small lander that hitched a ride with the Mars Express craft all the way back in 2003. Shortly after it was sent down to the surface contact with the probe was lost and it was long thought it met its end at an unplanned disassembly event. However we’ve recently discovered that it made all the way down and even managed to land safely on the surface.
Like the Mars Exploration Rovers Beagle 2 would use the martian atmosphere to shed much of its orbital velocity, protected by its ablative heat shield. Once it approached more manageable speeds it would then deploy its parachutes to begin the final part of its descent, drifting slowly towards the target site. Then, when it was about 200m above the ground, it would deploy airbags around its outer shell to protect it from the impact when it hit the surface. Once on the ground it would then begin unfurling its solar panels and instrumentation, making contact with its parent orbiter once all systems were nominal. However back on that fateful day it never made contact and it was assumed the lander likely destroyed.
The information we now have points towards a different story. It appears that pretty much everything went according to plan in terms of descent which, as my very high level description of the process can attest to, is usually the part when things go catastrophically wrong. Instead it appears that Beagle 2 made it all the surface and began the process of deploying its instruments. However from what we can see now (which isn’t much given that the lander is some 2m across and our current resolution is about 0.3m/pixel) it appears that it didn’t manage to unfurl all of its solar panels which would have greatly restricted its ability to gather energy. My untrained eye can see what looks like 2 panels and the instrumentation pod which would leave it with about half the power it was expecting.
In my opinion though (which should be taken with a dash of salt since I’m not a rocket scientist) there must have been some damage to other systems, most likely the communications array, which prevented it from making initial contact. I’d assume that there was enough charge for it to complete it’s initial start up activities which should have been enough to make initial contact with the orbiter. Such damage could have occurred at any number of points during the descent and would explain why there was total silence rather than a few blips before it dropped off completely. Of course this is just pure speculation at this point and we’re not likely to have any good answers until we actually visit the site (if that will ever happen, I’m looking at you Mr Musk).
Still discovering Beagle 2’s final resting place is a great find for all involved as it shows what went right with the mission and gives us clues as to what went wrong. This information will inform future missions to the red planet and hopefully one day we can write off the Mars curse as simply a lack in our understanding of what is required for a successful interplanetary mission. Indeed the bevy of successful NASA missions in the past decade is a testament to this constant, self correcting trial and error process, one that is built on the understanding gleaned from those who’ve come before.
Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.
Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.
Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.
The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.
It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.
There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.
Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.
The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.
The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.
It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.