Human spaceflight is, to be blunt, an unnecessarily complicated affair. Us humans require a whole host of things to make sure we can survive the trip through the harsh conditions of space, much more than our robotic companions require. Of course whilst robotic missions may be far more efficient at performing the missions we set them out on that doesn’t further our desire to become a multi-planetary species and thus the quest to find better ways to preserve our fragile bodies in the harsh realms of space continues. One of the biggest issues we face when travelling to other worlds is how we’ll build our homes there as traditional means will simply not work anywhere else that we currently know of. This is when novel techniques, such as 3D printing come into play.
Much of the construction we engage in today relies on numerous supporting industries in order to function. Transplanting these to other worlds is simply not feasible and taking prefabricated buildings along requires a bigger (or numerous smaller) launch vehicles in order to get the required payload into orbit. If we were able to build habitats in situ however then we could cut out the need for re-establishing the supporting infrastructure or bringing prefabricated buildings along with us, something which would go a long way to making an off-world colony sustainable. To that end NASA has started the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge with $2.25 million in prizes to jump start innovation in this area.
The first stage of the competition is for architects and design students to design habitats that maximise the benefits that 3D printing can provide. These will then likely be used to fuel further designs of habitats that could be constructed off-world. The second part of the competition, broken into 2 stages, is centered on the technology that will be used to create those kinds of structures. The first focuses on technology required to use materials available at site as a feed material for 3D printing, something which is currently only achieved with very specific feedstock. The second, and ultimately the most exciting, challenge is to actually build a device capable of using onsite materials (as well as recyclables) to create a habitable structure with a cool $1.1 million to those who satisfy the challenge. Doing that would be no easy feat of course but the technology created along the way will prove invaluable to future manned missions in our solar system.
We’re still likely many years away from having robots on the moon that can print us endless 3D habitats but the fact that NASA wants to spur innovation in this area means that they’re serious about pursuing a sustainable human presence offworld. There’s likely numerous engineering challenges that we’ll need to overcome, especially between different planets, but it’s far easier to adapt a current technology than it is to build one from scratch. I’m very keen to see the entries to this competition as they could very well end up visiting other planets to build us homes there.
MESSENGER was a great example of how NASA’s reputation for solid engineering can extend the life of their spacecraft far beyond anyone’s expectations. Originally slated for a one year mission once it reached it’s destination (a 7 year long journey in itself) MESSENGER continued to operate around Mercury for another 3 years past its original mission date, providing all sorts of great data on the diminutive planet that hugs our sun. However after being in orbit for so long its fuel reserves ran empty leaving it unable to maintain its orbit. Then last week MESSENGER crash landed on Mercury’s surface putting an end to the 10 year long mission. However before that happened MESSENGER sent back some interesting data around Mercury’s past.
As MESSENGER’s orbit deteriorated it creeped ever closer to the surface of Mercury allowing it to take measurements that it couldn’t do previously due to concerns about the spacecraft not being able to recover from such a close approach. During this time, when MESSENGER was orbiting at a mere 15KMs (just a hair above the max flight ceiling of a modern jetliner) it was able to use its magnetometer to detect the magnetic field emanating from the rocks on Mercury’s surface. These fields showed that the magnetic field that surrounds Mercury is incredibly ancient, dating back almost 4 billion years (right around the creation of our solar system). This is interesting for a variety of reasons but most of all because of how similar Mercury’s magnetic field is to ours.
Of all the planets in our solar system only Earth and Mars have a sustained magnetic field that comes from an internal dynamo of undulating molten metals. Whilst the gas giants also generate magnetic fields they come from a far more exotic form of matter (metallic hydrogen) and our other rocky planets, Venus and Mars, have cores that have long since solidified, killing any significant field that might have once been present. Mercury’s field is much weaker than Earth’s, on the order of only 1% or so, but it’s still enough to produce a magnetosphere that deflects the solar wind. Knowing how Mercury’s field evolved and changed over time will give us insights not only into our own magnetic field but of those planets in our solar system who have long since lost theirs.
There’s likely a bunch more revelations to come from the data that MESSENGER gathered over all those years it spent orbiting our tiny celestial sister but discoveries like this, ones that could only be made in the mission’s death throes, feel like they have a special kind of significance. Whilst it might not be the stuff that makes headlines around the world it’s the kind of incremental discovery that gives us insight into the inner workings of planets and their creation, something we will most definitely need to understand as we venture further into space.
Science reporting and science have something of a strained relationship. Whilst most scientists are modest and humble about the results that they produce the journalists who report on it often take the opposite approach, something which I feel drives the disillusionment of the public when it comes to announcing scientific progress. This rift is most visible when it comes to research that challenges current scientific thinking something which, whilst needs to be done on a regular basis to strengthen the validity of our current thinking, also needs to be approached with the same trepidation as any other research. However from time to time things still slip through the cracks like the latest news that the EmDrive may, potentially, be creating warp bubbles.
Initially the EmDrive, something which I blogged about late last year when the first results became public, was a curiosity that had an unknown mechanism of action necessitating further study. The recent results, the ones which are responsible for all the hubbub, were conducted within a vacuum chamber which nullified the criticism that the previous results were due to something like convection currents rather than another mechanism. That by itself is noteworthy, signalling that the EmDrive is something worth investigating further to see what’s causing the force, however things got a little crazy when they started shining lasers through it. They found that the time of flight of the light going through the EmDrive’s chamber was getting slowed down somehow which, potentially, could be caused by distortions in space time.
The thing to note here though is that the previous test was conducted in atmosphere, not in a vacuum like the previous test. This introduces another variable which, honestly, should have been controlled for as it’s entirely possible that that effect is caused by something as innocuous as atmospheric distortions. There’s even real potential for this to go the same way as the faster than light neutrinos with the astoundingly repeatable results being created completely out of nothing thanks to equipment that wasn’t calibrated properly. Whilst I’m all for challenging the fundamental principles of science routinely and vigorously we must remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and right now there’s not enough of that to support many of the conclusions that the wider press has been reaching.
What we mustn’t lose sight of here though is that the EmDrive, in its current form, points at a new mechanism of generating thrust that could potentially revolutionize our access to the deeper reaches of space. All the other spurious stuff around it is largely irrelevant as the core kernel of science that we discovered last year, that a resonant cavity pumped with microwaves can produce thrust in the absence of any reaction mass, seems to be solid. What’s required now is that we dive further into this and figure out just how the heck it’s generating that force because once we understand that we can further exploit it, potentially opening up the path to even better propulsion technology. If it turns out that it does create warp bubbles than all the better but until we get definitive proof on that speculating along that direction really doesn’t help us or the researchers behind it.
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.
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.
Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.
The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.
When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.
The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.
It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.
When you think of scientific telescopes there’s usually only 2 different types that come to mind. The ones down here on terra firma, with their giant white domes covering their precious mirrors, and the ones up in space like the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Each of these has is set of benefits and drawbacks, like the ground based ones having massive mirrors and the space based ones not having to deal with our atmosphere. However there’s potential for a telescope that straddles the boundaries of these two types of telescopes, one that’s far above the Earth’s surface but also doesn’t require the heavy energy investment of an orbital craft. Indeed NASA has flown craft like these in the past and they’re now looking to airships to fly the next generation of such telescopes.
Ground based telescopes suffer from 2 major drawbacks related to the atmosphere. The first is the aberrations caused by the shifting atmosphere, the same thing that causes the stars to twinkle at night, which makes precise measurements incredibly difficult. The second is that the atmosphere is great at absorbing a lot of the frequencies of light, specifically infrared, something which we can’t really overcome with special optics or filters. Putting a telescope in space negates these problems but brings with it a whole other set of challenges which is precisely why NASA is looking to develop a sub-orbital telescope concept using an airship as the platform.
NASA has constructed platforms like this in the past, the most notable one of which is SOFIA, an infrared observatory that’s built into the back of a Boeing 747. At its cruising altitude it’s able to see 85% of the total infrared light coming to Earth a considerable amount more than any ground based telescope will be able to see. The primary limit to SOFIA is its endurance time which is around eight hours or so although its capability to be pretty much anywhere in the world does make it incredibly flexible in the operations it can perform. The airship design that NASA is looking to pursue would address this limitation whilst providing some other benefits.
Airships, whilst not being as mobile as their winged cousins, have the advantage of being able to stay aloft in a location for extended periods of time that aircraft simply aren’t capable of doing. For an observatory this provides several advantages such as being able to do longer exposures on targets as well as being able to take advantage of higher bandwidth downlinks to their base sites. There are several engineering challenges that will need to be solved before a viable aircraft will materialize, but it’s certainly within the realms of possibility.
Pending funding of the idea NASA will be funding it X-prize style, looking for designs (and I assume workable craft) that can carry a small or large payload up into the atmosphere. Such programs have proved to be highly successful in the past and I’m sure we’ll see some pretty interesting craft come out of it. Considering that SOFIA is slated to be shut down due to budgetary concerns sometime next year a viable alternative needs to be sought so they don’t introduce more holes in their capabilities. Of course getting an airship with a telescope up in the air before that happens isn’t going to be likely but the sooner the process is started the better.