Whilst the debate among the space enthusiast community still rages about what the next target for human exploration should be those with the capability seem to have already made a decision: we’re going to Mars. NASA has committed to getting astronauts there some time around 2030 and SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, has long held the dream that he’d be retiring on Mars. There’s also the Mars One which, to my surprise, is still going and garnering attention worldwide even here in my home country. The lack of a return mission to the Moon does raise some questions about the technology that will be used as we don’t have any craft capable of going past low earth orbit, not since the Apollo program ended almost half a century ago.
NASA has been working on a new crew capsule for some time now, dubbed the Orion. Initially this was part of the planned 2020 mission to return to the Moon however the majority of that was scrapped in favour of going directly to Mars. The capsule and the revised launch system were retained however and will form the basis of NASA’s future manned space missions. However if the Moon is no longer the goal for this craft and it’s end goal will be long duration flight there’s a lot of testing that needs to be done before we send one of them to Mars. Interestingly NASA has gone for an incredibly ambitious mission to put the Orion’s long duration flight capabilities to the test: an asteroid capture and analysis mission.
There’s currently two mission profiles being considered, both of them seeming like something straight out of science fiction. The first (and I’ll guess least likely of the two) is a robotic craft will make its way to a large asteroid, break a chunk of it off and then bring it back into orbit around the moon. The second would be a straight up asteroid capture with the craft grabbing an asteroid in its entirety (it would be small, about 7m or so in diameter) and, again, putting it into lunar orbit. Then once the asteroid is in a stable orbit NASA will send crew to it in an Orion capsule to study it, testing out some of the long duration capabilities as well as other rudimentary space activities like EVAs.
Such a mission is actually quite feasible (at least the latter profile) from a technical perspective. Pretty much all the technology required to capture an asteroid of that size is available today and there’s already 6 candidate asteroids identified. The main issue I see with it is time as just getting to the asteroid is planned to take at least 4 years with another 2 to 6 required for it to make the trip back. That means if the mission were to launch today it could potentially take up to 2024 before it returns to us which doesn’t leave a lot of time for NASA to test out the Orion capsule on it, This could be sped up considerably by changing it’s launch profile to include a second stage rocket to boost it rather than relying on the ion thrusters to achieve escape velocity but that would come with additional expense. There’s also the possibility of foregoing the robotic part of this mission completely and just sending humans although that poses just as many challenges as going straight to mars.
I’m glad to see NASA making a return to missions like these, ones that truly push the envelop of humanity’s space capabilities. It’s going to be interesting to see how the mission develops as there’s lots of different variables that need to be sorted out, some that will change the mission dramatically. Still the thought of us being able to capture an asteroid, bring it into lunar orbit and then send humans to study it is just an incredible thing to think about and I truly hope NASA sees this one through to fruition.
It’s almost scary how similar Earth and Venus are in some respects. We’re roughly the same size, with Earth edging Venus out by 300KMs in diameter, and consequently roughly the same mass as well. The similarities end when you start looking further however with Venus being the hottest planet in our solar system due to its runaway greenhouse effect, it’s atmosphere a choking combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. If there was ever a warning about the devastating potential about greenhouse gases it is our celestial sister Venus, but in that chaos lies an abundance of scientific data that could help us better understand ourselves and, hopefully, avoid the same fate.
Studying Venus’ atmosphere isn’t an easy task however as those extreme conditions have meant that the longest our probes have managed to survive down there is a couple hours. We can still do a lot of good work with satellites and spectral analysis but there’s really no substitute for actually being in the atmosphere for an extended period of time. Strangely enough whilst Venus’ atmosphere might be one of the most unforgiving in our solar system its composition, made up primarily of heavy than air elements, provides an unique opportunity that an atmospheric study craft could take advantage of. A concept craft that does just this is called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) by Northrop Grumman.
The VAMP is part airship, part traditional aircraft which would spend the majority of its life high in Venus’ atmosphere. To do this the VAMP craft is extremely light, on the order of 500kgs, but it has a wingspan that exceeds that of a Boeing 737. The craft itself would be inflatable, allowing VAMP to cruise at altitudes between 55KM and 70KM above Venus’ surface. It can do this because of the incredible density of Venus’ atmosphere which makes even regular breathable air from Earth a powerful lifting gas. The only limit to its lifespan in the Venusian atmosphere would be its power source and since it could take advantage of the freely available sun a platform like VAMP could run for an incredibly long time.
The concept is actually a rework of another one that was designed to fly through the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a mission many have wanted to undertake since the Huygens probe landed there a decade ago. The challenges of flying an aircraft there are far greater than that of Venus, primarily due to the much thinner atmosphere and huge drop in solar radiation to take advantage of. It would still be doable of course, however the mission profile you’d have to go with would have to be much less ambitious and the time frames much shorter. Still it surprises me that the concept didn’t go the other way around as putting balloons in Venus’ atmosphere has always been a concept that many wanted to explore.
Northrop Grumman appears to be quite serious about the VAMP project as they outlined many objectives they wanted to achieve for it back in 2013. I can’t seem to find much more on it unfortunately which means it’s likely still in the concept phase, hoping for a mission profile to come along that suits it. Considering how many incredible envelope pushing missions we’ve had of late I don’t think something like VAMP is too far out of left field, especially considering that it’s based on already proven technologies. Still it doesn’t seem like it will be too long before we have a plane soaring through another world’s atmosphere, another science fiction dream becoming a reality.
As many know my experience with 3D printing has come with mixed results, as the kit I bought with 3 friends required more calibration than I was willing to do and my friend’s Solidoodle proved to be a reliable way to create the objects I needed. I’m still highly interested in the area (I was going to post a review of Microsoft’s 3D Builder but just never found the time to hook it all up) and I strongly believe that the commoditization of manufacturing at the small scale will prove to be revolutionary. One area of particular interest was the idea of a food printer, something that could potentially make a meal out of some base nutritional components.
As it turns out this might be closer than I first imagined (skip to 1 minute in for the good stuff):
NASA stated investigating the idea of 3D printing food a little while ago, investing a small amount of money into research to create a device capable of creating edible foodstuffs on the International Space Station. Primarily this was to fuel a longer term goal to provide food for an interplanetary trip to Mars as its believed that 3D printed food could dramatically reduce waste and improve efficiency with transported materials. Whilst this current demonstration appears to be limited to producing pizza (something which seems a perfect fit for a first run) NASA’s vision is for something far more general and it looks like they’re well on their way to achieving that.
It’s a big step considering that we’ve had printers capable of producing chocolate models for some time, but the leap to other food has proved somewhat elusive. It will likely be quite some time before it gets much more general than your run of the mill pizza however although some of the designs making the rounds are really quite impressive. Time will tell if they’ll ever become mass market devices but I can definitely see themselves finding a home in space stations and high end restaurants looking to create truly unique dishes.
The Kepler Mission is by far one of the most exciting things NASA has done in recent memory. It’s goal was simple, observe a patch of stars continuously for a long period of time in order to detect the planets that orbit them. It’s lone instrument for doing so is a highly sensitive photometer designed to detect the ever so subtle changes in brightness of a parent star when one of its planets transits in front of it. Whilst the chances are low of everything lining up just right so that we can witness such an event the fact that Kepler could monitor some 145,000 stars at once meant that we were almost guaranteed to see a great deal of success.
Indeed we got just that.
The first six weeks of Kepler’s operation proved to be highly successful with 5 planets discovered, albeit ones that would likely be inhospitable due to their close proximity to their parent stars. The years since then have proved to be equally fruitful with Kepler identifying thousands of potential exoplanet candidates with hundreds of them since being confirmed via other methods. These discoveries have reshaped our idea of what our universe looks like with a planetary system like our own now thought to be a relatively common occurrence. Whilst we’re still a long way from finding our home away from home there’s a ton of tantalizing evidence suggesting that such places are numerous with untold numbers of them right in our own galaxy.
However earlier this year Kepler was struck with an insurmountable problem. You see in order to monitor that field of stars precisely Kepler relied on a set of reaction wheels to ensure it was pointed in the right direction at all times. There are a total of 4 of them on board and Kepler only needed 3 of them in order to keep the precision up at the required level. Unfortunately it had previously had one fail forcing the backup wheel to kick into motion. Whilst that had been running fine for a while on May 15th this year another reaction wheel failed and Kepler was unable to maintain its fix on the star field. At the time this was thought to be the end of the mission and, due to the specialized nature of the hardware, likely the end of Kepler’s useful life.
However, thanks to some incredibly clever mechanics, Kepler may rise again.
Whilst there are only 2 functioning reaction wheels NASA scientists have determined that there’s another source of force for them to use. If they orient Kepler in a certain way so that its solar panels are all evenly lit by the sun (the panels wrap around the outer shell of the craft) there’s a constant and reliable force applied to them. In conjunction with the 2 remaining reaction wheels this is enough to aim it, albeit at a different patch of the sky than originally intended. Additionally it won’t be able to keep itself on point consistently like it did previously, needing to reorient itself every 3 months or so which means it will end up studying a different part of the sky.
Whilst this is a massive deviation from its original intended purpose it could potentially breathe a whole new life into the craft, prolonging its life significantly. Considering the numerous discoveries it has already helped us achieve continuing its mission in any way possible is a huge boon to the science community and a testament to NASA’s engineering prowess. We’re still at the initial stages of verifying whether or not this will work as intended but I’m very confident it will, meaning we’ll be enjoying Kepler aided discoveries for a long time to come.
Mars is by far the most studied planet that isn’t our own, having had 46 separate missions launched to it since the 1960s and is currently host to no less than 5 active missions both in orbit and on its surface. Those missions have taught us a lot about our red celestial sister, the most intriguing of which is that it was once not unlike Earth, covered in vast swaths of ocean which could potentially have been host to all sorts of life. Even more interesting is that while it’s little more than a barren desert that’s only notionally above vacuum it still contains water ice in non-trivial quantities, leading many to speculate that somewhere its liquid form must also exist. The process by which Mars transformed from a lush landscape like ours to the wasteland it is today is still shrouded in mystery and is something that MAVEN, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, is seeking to solve.
MAVEN successfully launched yesterday atop of an ATLAS V rocket and will spend the better part of a year transiting the distance between Earth and Mars. Its primary objective is to investigate the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere to try and ascertain the factors that influenced its demise. Since the current prevailing theory is that a cooling planetary core led to a loss of a protective magnetic field which then allowed the solar wind to slow strip away the atmosphere many of the instruments aboard the craft are geared towards measuring solar particles around Mars’ orbit. The rest of the instrumentation is focused on directly measuring Mars’ atmosphere which will then allow scientists to reconstruct a full picture of it and the influences working on it.
I believe this is also (and someone feel free to correct me on this) the reason for its slightly abnormal orbit for when it arrives at Mars. Instead of taking the usual approach of having a near circular orbit (like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) it instead has a highly elliptical orbit with the closet approach being a mere 150KM above the surface whilst its furthest point is 6200KM out. This would allow the craft to get good measurements of the levels of solar particles as it gets closer to the surface and how that compares to it further out. Considering the orbital period will also only be 4.5 hours it would make for some rather exciting flybys if you were aboard that craft but then again that’s not an orbit you’d use if you had people on board.
The orbit also has the rather unfortunate effect of limiting one of MAVEN’s more long term capabilities: it’s link back to Earth. MAVEN has a 10Mbit/s link thanks to an updated Electra array which is almost twice as powerful as MRO’s. However due to the rather eccentric orbit it won’t be available as often which will limit the amount of data that can be passed back. This doesn’t just impact the satellite itself though as whilst the rovers on Mars can communicate directly to Earth it’s not a very fast connection, so most offload onto a local satellite for their more data hungry applications. Since it’s currently only an augment to the other fleet of satellites around Mars this isn’t too much of an issue although it could present some contention issues later on the track when the other satellites are retired.
The science that MAVEN will conduct on its planned 1 year mission will prove invaluable in determining just what happened to Mars’ atmosphere and, by extension, what the chances are of any life existing on its surface today. It will also provide infrastructure for future missions, allowing them to be more ambitious in the goals that they attempt to reach. For now though it’s 1 day into its long trip to our celestial sister, quietly awaiting the day when it can finally start fulfilling its purpose.
The moon is our closest celestial neighbour and as a consequence is by far one of the most studied celestial bodies. By all accounts it’s a barren wasteland, covered in numerous pot marks from the asteroids that have bombarded it over its lifetime. However the more we investigate it the more we find out that, whilst there’s almost no chance of life being present there, many of the resources that life depends on can be found there. Whilst we’ve known for a while that it would be possible to extract water from the regolith on the surface new observations from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 have revealed that there might be actual water on the Moon, just waiting there for us to use.
The initial implications of this are obvious. Water is one of the fundamental resources required for any human based space mission and the amount required usually has to be brought along for the ride. This means the payload capacity used for bringing water along can’t be used for other things, like additional supplies or more equipment, and presents a big challenge for long duration flights. Having a source on the Moon means that any potential bases or colonies established there would have much less reliance on resupply missions from Earth, something which is the primary limiting factor for any off-world colonies that we attempt to establish.
However that pales in comparison when compared to what water on the Moon means for space in general: it’s a primary component for rocket fuel.
Water’s basic composition is hydrogen and oxygen which are the components which power many of the liquid fuelled rocket engines that operate today. Of course in their bonded state they’re not a ready to use propellent exactly so a process is required to break those bonds and get those atoms separated. Thankfully such a process exists, called electrolysis, which splits water down into its component gasses which can then be stored and later used to send rockets on their way. Of course such a process relies on a stable power source which would likely be some like of large solar array backed up by a large battery bank to last through the 2 week long darkness that regularly blankets half the surface.
The biggest challenge that many of the long duration or large payload missions face is the fact that they require more fuel. Carrying more fuel unfortunately also means carry more fuel and there’s points of diminishing returns where you’re spending far too much fuel just to get yourself out of our gravity well. Having a refuelling station or the Moon (or, even better, constructing and launch payloads from there) would mean that we would put larger payloads into space and then push them to the outer reaches of the solar system without having to waste as much fuel to get ourselves out of Earth’s gravitational influence.
Of course seeing this kind of technology implemented is some ways off as it seems like NASA’s next target will be a flag planting mission on Mars. Such technology would be quite applicable to Mars as well seeing as the soil there has a lot of trapped water (and there’s plentiful water ice pretty much everywhere but the equatorial region) but it’d be far more valuable if it was implemented on the moon. In either case I believe this is foundational technology that will be pivotal in humanity pushing itself to the far reaches of our own solar system and, maybe one day, beyond.
There was a long running joke that the International Space Station existed only as a place for the shuttle to go. Whilst that joke ignores the fact that the ISS wasn’t just an American creation it was true that the Shuttle really only had a single destination for the last decade or so of its life. Still it was pretty damn good at its job, both in terms of delivering payloads and its ability to ferry large crews and its retirement left a large hole in launch capabilities that is still yet to be filled. There have been many alternatives popping up however and the second fully privately funded one, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, made its launch debut last week.
In terms of capabilities the Cygnus is very similar to the Russian Progress craft with the initial versions able to deliver a payload of 2,000kg to the ISS. This is scheduled to be bumped up to 2,700kg after the first 3 vehicles as the craft and its associated launcher will be upgraded, giving it more significantly more interior volume as well. Much like all the other ISS cargo craft it does not have an automated docking capability and needs to be captured by CANADARM2 before being guided to one of the station’s ports. Additionally the Cygnus does not have any capability to reboost the ISS whilst it is docked, something which seems to be uniquely confined to the ATV (although the Progress can do it if required), and does not have any down range capability meaning it burns up on re-entry.
The first Cygnus craft launched late last week after a technical glitch caused a one day delay whilst a fix was developed. The launch itself was trouble free and it spent the weekend catching up to the ISS for a scheduled rendezvous today. Unfortunately whilst the Cygnus was attempting to establish a direct data link with the ISS another glitch was encountered forcing it to abort the current docking attempt. This will delay any further attempts for another couple days due to the orbital mechanics involved but this will give Orbital Sciences enough time to create and test a fix so that the next attempt should be successful.
Just like SpaceX before it Orbital Sciences has a pretty aggressive schedule for successive flights with the next flight lined up for December this year and 3 to follow in 2014. Considering their pedigree with multiple launch systems under their belt this is somewhat expected but it’s still quite amazing to see just how quickly these private companies can move when compared to previous governmental based efforts. It will be interesting to see if they ever adapt the Cygnus to be a human rated craft as whilst they’ve never launched people before they’ve got much of the expertise needed to do so.
It’s great to see that NASA’s COTS program is doing so well, producing results that many believed would be impossible. Whilst they still haven’t bridged the launch capability gap that the Shuttle has left behind they’ve already demonstrated one major part of it and I know it won’t be long before the crewed capability is restored. I’m hopeful that this will enable NASA to continue focusing on the real envelope pushing ideas to further our capabilities in space, leaving the more rudimentary aspects of it to the private market. The future of private space travel is looking brighter by the day and I’m glad Orbital Sciences, with their incredible pedigree of delivering on space projects, has come along for the ride.
Bar our own planet Mars is by far the most studied planet in the solar system. Despite the fact that almost half the missions sent to Mars have ended in disaster we’ve still managed to do a whole lot of science there and our most recent mission, the Curiosity rover, has managed to capture the attention of millions worldwide. The next logical step would then be to send ourselves over there as whilst robotic explorers are great at specific tasks there’s a whole host of other things we could do if we had a few pairs of boots over there. Such a mission has been on everyone’s minds ever since we first set foot on the Moon over 4 decades ago but progress towards achieving it has been slow, verging on non-existent.
This is not to say that there isn’t interest in doing this. NASA currently has a mandate set by the Obama government to reach Mars by 2030 a goal which they’re actively working towards with the Space Launch System. SpaceX has also expressed a keen interest in doing something similar, albeit without help from NASA, in a much more aggressive time frame. Russia has also alluded to a revamp in their space program, primarily aimed at modernizing their current fleet, which could see them establishing a moon base and possibly flying a mission to Mars. However none of these have created the stir that the fully private Mars One mission and that’s probably for good reason.
For the uninitiated Mars One is a non-profit organisation that has the extremely ambitious goal of landing 4 people on the surface of Mars by 2023. They believe they can do this at a total cost of about $6 billion for the first 4 ($4 billion for the second lot) and plan to raise a chunk of that change through making a reality TV show based around the recruitment process. This is where it gets interesting/controversial as the application process is open to anyone and has already garnered 78,000 applications from around the world. In case you’re wondering no, I’m not one of them because I’m quite sceptical that they, or anyone really, could pull off this feat with the budget they’re claiming. I’d do a detailed breakdown of why this is so but I came across this article this morning that does a far better job of explaining it than I’d do.
At the same time Buzz Aldrin has just released his new book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration which is the culmination of his many decades of experience and ideas for getting us humans to our red sister. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to read it I do know of many of the things he’ll be discussing in it (like the Aldrin Cycler) and they’re solid, realistic goals that could be achieved by NASA in the time frames he sets out. If you’re doubting his credentials Buzz has a Phd in astronautics and has done a lot of work for NASA that’s still in use today. Whether or not NASA, or any other space faring nation for that matter, takes his advice under wing will remain to be seen but I’m sure the book will make great reading regardless.
All that being said I do get the feeling that we’re starting to see the beginnings of a mini-space race, one that’s taking place between the private space industry and the super power governments of the world. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge the victor from this but I’m just thankful that there are multiple entities all driving towards the same goal as the more players we have in the field the more likely it is to happen. I’m sceptical that we’ll see humans on Mars within the next decade but we’re likely to push the boundaries of human exploration further than has ever been done before, fixing us firmly on a path to our celestial sister.
It’s hard for me to hide my fan boy nature when it comes to private space flight. Whilst all credit must go to Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic for getting me inspired about all things space they have unfortunately taken a second seat to my current space crush. Not-so-long time readers will know that I’m talking about SpaceX, a company that has shown time and time again that they’re capable of not only developing technology that no private entity had previously but also delivering on their patently crazy promises. However I’m not in favour of monopolies/single points of failure (stemming from my capitalistic/engineering nature respectively) and the more options we have available to us for putting things in space the better.
Today it appears we have another contender: the Orbital Science’s Antares rocket.
Now I’ve only mentioned Orbital Sciences briefly in the past, noting that they won a contract to provide launch capabilities to NASA alongside SpaceX as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, but their legacy stretches back quite a long way. Founded in 1982 they’ve developed several different launch platforms in tandem with NASA and have also been involved in numerous high profile scientific missions. Most recently they developed the Dawn craft which is currently in the asteroid belt transiting from the asteroid Vesta to the dwarf planet Ceres. Needless to say if anyone has the chops to develop their own launch system it’s orbital sciences and the Antares rocket is their first such system.
On paper it looks to be somewhere between the Falcon 1 and 9 with a total payload to LEO of around 5000kg. The two first stage engines are curious little beasts, originally designed to form the basis of the Russian N-1 rocket that was bound for the moon. Considering that launch system was a dismal failure you’d then have to wonder about them using the engines from it but N-1′s issues were mostly process/design based rather than stemming from issues from one particular component. It also has a slightly wider payload fairing than the Falcon 9 at 3.9m in diameter which could come in handy for certain mission profiles.
The first launch of the Antares (dubbed A-ONE) was scheduled to happen in the middle of last week however some minor technical issues delayed the launch. The rocket itself was fine however one of the umbilical cables disconnected 12 minutes prior to launch, far too early when it usually happens right before lift off. Thankfully this didn’t require the rocket to be stood down and they were able to reschedule it for a couple days later. Unfortunately high winds on the second launch day caused them to issue a no-go due to weather and it was rescheduled for today. Thankfully conditions improved and they were able to launch, making the Antares rocket the second fully private rocket to make it to orbit.
Apart from that it’s still notable for many reasons. If the picture above looks a little unfamiliar to you it’s because the Antares wasn’t launched from the iconic Cape Canaveral. Instead it was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia, a place that doesn’t usually see rockets of this size. Indeed the Antares rocket is the largest rocket to ever be launched from this facility and will likely become the defacto launch site for the rocket in the future thanks to its much less crowded launch schedule. If all goes to plan this site could see another 2 launches of the Antares rocket this year which would be on par with SpaceX’s rapid turnaround times.
Today marks a great achievement for Orbital Sciences and the greater space industry as it shows that not only is the private space industry viable, it can likely support several competing players. This will only help spur innovation forward as companies look to outpace each other on every aspect. Whilst SpaceX might be the current starlet Orbital Sciences has decades of experience behind them and I can’t imagine them being in the backseat for very long. As always this means that the cost to launch will trend downwards and from there it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the commodity level.
And that, my friends, is really exciting.
When I first wrote about Planetary Resources early last year I was erring on the side of cautious optimism because back then there wasn’t a whole lot of information available regarding how they were actually going to achieve their goal. Indeed even their first goal of building and launching multiple space telescopes sounded like it was beyond the capabilities of even veteran players in this industry. Still the investors backing them weren’t the type to be taken for a ride so I figured they were worth keeping an eye on to see how they progressed towards their goal.
And boy have they ever:
The above video shows off one of their prototypes of the Arkyd-100 space based telescope. Now back when Planetary Resources first started talking about what they were going to do I wasn’t expecting something of this size. Indeed I don’t believe anyone has attempted to make a space based telescope that small before as you’re usually trying to amp up your light gathering potential with a large mirror. Still despite the relatively small mirror size they should be quite capable of doing the required imagery that will lead them to potential mineable asteroids.
Their communications set up is also highly intriguing as traditional space communications require large dishes and costly receiving equipment back here on earth. Planetary Resources are instead looking to use lasers for their deep space communications an idea that I didn’t think would be possible. A quick bit of research turns up this document from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab which goes into some detail about their feasibility and shockingly it appears to only be an engineering challenge at this point. How long it will take to turn it into something usable remains to be seen but considering Planetary Resources are looking to launch within the next couple years I’d hazard a guess that they’re already pretty close to getting it working.
Looking at all this you’d think I’d be ashamed of my initial scepticism but I’m not, I love it when people prove me wrong like this. Indeed the work that Planetary Resources are doing closely resembles that of the early days of SpaceX, a company which has gone on to achieve things that no other private company has done before. Given enough time it’s looking like Planetary Resources will be able to do the same and that gets me all kinds of excited.