In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along – a new technology, business model or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.
But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.
While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel – all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone – the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit – ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?
The new global space industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.
Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase – openness – with private, commercial companies leading the way.
The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.
In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand and the U.S.
The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.
More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization – it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”
One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and – more impressively – returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.
Challenges and opportunities
Amidst the growth of capital, firms and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments and information scarcity.
One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.
How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth – for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.
I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.
Resources in space
You might wonder where one gets the materials for manufacturing in space, but there is actually an abundance of resources: Metals for manufacturing can be found within asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen as ice on planets and moons, and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we brought that particular isotope back to Earth, we could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people are acquiring the technical know-how to locate and navigate to these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.
How do these cases change the economics in the space industry? Already, companies like Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Asterank are organizing to address these opportunities. And scholars are beginning to outline how to navigate questions of property rights, exploitation and partnerships.
Threats from space junk
The movie “Gravity” opens with a Russian satellite exploding, which sets off a chain reaction of destruction thanks to debris hitting a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. The sequence, while not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, in 2013, a Russian satellite disintegrated when it was hit with fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger from the 500,000-plus pieces of space debris has already gotten some attention in public policy circles. How should one prevent, reduce or mitigate this risk? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and addressing sustainable operations is still to come.
It’s true that space is becoming just another place to do business. There are companies that will handle the logistics of getting your destined-for-space module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those rockets to the International Space Station; and there are others that can make a replacement part once there.What’s next?
What comes next? In one sense, it’s anybody’s guess, but all signs point to this new industry forging ahead. A new breakthrough could alter the speed, but the course seems set: exploring farther away from home, whether that’s the moon, asteroids or Mars. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, SpaceX launches were yet to be successful. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of scores of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is working to solidify the business practices and mature the industry.
Standing in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the White House Frontiers Conference, I see the future. Wrapped around my head are state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles. I’m looking at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and crisp. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has poured resources into such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, someone will be standing on the actual surface of Mars.
A human journey to Mars, at first glance, offers an inexhaustible amount of complexities. To bring a mission to the Red Planet from fiction to fact, NASA’s Human Research Program has organized hazards astronauts will encounter on a continual basis into five classifications. Pooling the challenges into categories allows for an organized effort to overcome the obstacles that lay before such a mission. However, these hazards do not stand alone. They can feed off one another and exacerbate effects on the human body. These hazards are being studied using ground-based analogs, laboratories, and the International Space Station, which serves as a test bed to evaluate human performance and countermeasures required for the exploration of space.
Various research platforms give NASA valuable insight into how the human body and mind might respond during extended forays into space. The resulting data, technology and methods developed serve as valuable knowledge to extrapolate to multi-year interplanetary missions.
The first hazard of a human mission to Mars is also the most difficult to visualize because, well, space radiation is invisible to the human eye. Radiation is not only stealthy, but considered one of the most menacing of the five hazards.
Above Earth’s natural protection, radiation exposure increases cancer risk, damages the central nervous system, can alter cognitive function, reduce motor function and prompt behavioral changes. To learn what can happen above low-Earth orbit, NASA studies how radiation affects biological samples using a ground-based research laboratory.
The space station sits just within Earth’s protective magnetic field, so while our astronauts are exposed to ten-times higher radiation than on Earth, it’s still a smaller dose than what deep space has in store.
To mitigate this hazard, deep space vehicles will have significant protective shielding, dosimetry, and alerts. Research is also being conducted in the field of medical countermeasures such as pharmaceuticals to help defend against radiation.
2. Isolation and confinement
Behavioral issues among groups of people crammed in a small space over a long period of time, no matter how well trained they are, are inevitable. Crews will be carefully chosen, trained and supported to ensure they can work effectively as a team for months or years in space.
On Earth we have the luxury of picking up our cell phones and instantly being connected with nearly everything and everyone around us. On a trip to Mars, astronauts will be more isolated and confined than we can imagine. Sleep loss, circadian desynchronization, and work overload compound this issue and may lead to performance decrements, adverse health outcomes, and compromised mission objectives.
To address this hazard, methods for monitoring behavioral health and adapting/refining various tools and technologies for use in the spaceflight environment are being developed to detect and treat early risk factors. Research is also being conducted in workload and performance, light therapy for circadian alignment, phase shifting and alertness.
3. Distance from Earth
The third and perhaps most apparent hazard is, quite simply, the distance. Mars is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth. Rather than a three-day lunar trip, astronauts would be leaving our planet for roughly three years. While International Space Station expeditions serve as a rough foundation for the expected impact on planning logistics for such a trip, the data isn’t always comparable. If a medical event or emergency happens on the station, the crew can return home within hours. Additionally, cargo vehicles continual resupply the crews with fresh food, medical equipment, and other resources. Once you burn your engines for Mars, there is no turning back and no resupply.
Planning and self-sufficiency are essential keys to a successful Martian mission. Facing a communication delay of up to 20 minutes one way and the possibility of equipment failures or a medical emergency, astronauts must be capable of confronting an array of situations without support from their fellow team on Earth.
4. Gravity (or lack thereof)
The variance of gravity that astronauts will encounter is the fourth hazard of a human mission. On Mars, astronauts would need to live and work in three-eighths of Earth’s gravitational pull for up to two years. Additionally, on the six-month trek between the planets, explorers will experience total weightlessness.
Besides Mars and deep space there is a third gravity field that must be considered. When astronauts finally return home they will need to readapt many of the systems in their bodies to Earth’s gravity. Bones, muscles, cardiovascular system have all been impacted by years without standard gravity. To further complicate the problem, when astronauts transition from one gravity field to another, it’s usually quite an intense experience. Blasting off from the surface of a planet or a hurdling descent through an atmosphere is many times the force of gravity.
Research is being conducted to ensure that astronauts stay healthy before, during and after their mission. NASA is identifying how current and future, FDA-approved osteoporosis treatments, and the optimal timing for such therapies could be employed to mitigate the risk for astronauts developing premature osteoporosis. Adaptability training programs and improving the ability to detect relevant sensory input are being investigated to mitigate balance control issues. Research is ongoing to characterize optimal exercise prescriptions for individual astronauts, as well as defining metabolic costs of critical mission tasks they would expect to encounter on a Mars mission.
5. Hostile/closed environments
A spacecraft is not only a home, it’s also a machine. NASA understands that the ecosystem inside a vehicle plays a big role in everyday astronaut life. Important habitability factors include temperature, pressure, lighting, noise, and quantity of space. It’s essential that astronauts are getting the requisite food, sleep and exercise needed to stay healthy and happy.
Technology, as often is the case with out-of-this-world exploration, comes to the rescue in creating a habitable home in a harsh environment. Everything is monitored, from air quality to possible microbial inhabitants. Microorganisms that naturally live on your body are transferred more easily from one person to another in a closed environment. Astronauts, too, contribute data points via urine and blood samples, and can reveal valuable information about possible stressors. The occupants are also asked to provide feedback about their living environment, including physical impressions and sensations so that the evolution of spacecraft can continue addressing the needs of humans in space. Extensive recycling of resources we take for granted is also imperative: oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, even our waste.
Human research essential to space exploration
NASA has already gone beyond simply identifying five challenges of human spaceflight to facilitate a focused and organized effort to reach Mars. Within the agency, there are entities dedicated to the evolution of spaceflight in all five of these areas.
NASA’s Human Research Program remains committed to preserving the health and vitality of the crew that will someday touch down upon Mars. While these five hazards present significant challenges, they also offer opportunities for growth and innovation in technology, medicine and our understanding of the human body. One human challenge explored, one step closer to Mars.
“Spreading out into space will completely change the future of humanity,” says Stephen Hawking. It “may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth”.
The world-famous physicist was talking at a recent science festival in Trondheim, Norway. And his keynote speech to the Starmus Festival about giving humanity a sense of purpose raises some very important questions about our views of positive futures.
For Hawking “a new and ambitious space programme would excite (young people), and stimulate interest in other areas, such as astrophysics and cosmology”. Humans have to leave Earth, he explained, due to an array of threats including asteroid strikes, resource depletion, overpopulation, deforestation, decimation of animal species, and the effects of human made climate change (particularly rising temperatures and melting ice caps).
Yet hearing such a viewpoint in response to the challenges we face leaves me cold. We cannot flee the apocalypse forever, leaving a chosen few to flourish on other planets; we need positive visions for humanity here on Earth.
I am not a physicist, I research and teach in a business school about how people and organisations go about taking action to address sustainability challenges, such as the global ecological threats mentioned by Hawking.
The concept of sustainability has been traced back to ideas that emerged in forestry about 300 years ago to sustain yields. The general implication of this expansive and slippery concept is that we need to work out ways to sustain both the social (including economic) and ecological processes that enable us to live in ways that we value.
Key questions are raised by Hawking’s speech and we can use these questions to briefly explore Hawking’s ideas about a future for humanity:
What is being sustained?
Hawking’s suggestion is that by establishing colonies on the moon or Mars we are helping to guarantee that some form of human life will continue beyond Earth being humanly habitable. What is being sustained is a protected bubble of a small selection of humans in artificially created Earth-styled environments somewhere in space.
How long is it being sustained?
Given his background in research into how the universe began – and will end – it is perhaps no surprise that in Hawking’s vision for humanity the time horizons are very long. His intention is for another million years of human life, with our space colonies enabling us to live even beyond the life of Earth itself.
In whose interest is what being sustained?
We can identify a range of core interests who would benefit from Hawking’s idea of humanity spreading out into space, including astrophysicists, astronauts, space agencies (science-related areas of work) which tend to be much more appealing to men and the members of the future space colonies.
But what about everyone not on the Ark?
The problem is that such a purpose or vision for humanity involves, and is relevant for, very limited groups of people. They will generally do certain types of jobs, and will be citizens of, or live in, those few countries that are putting serious money into space exploration. It’s easy enough to imagine a colony on Mars with the same sort of demographic makeup as a Silicon Valley tech giant. It’s much harder to imagine a colony populated by people with little financial wealth from less wealthy countries – the very people most affected by the environmental threats Hawking refers to.
I don’t have any particular objections to space travel itself. Interplanetary tourism doesn’t come cheap of course, and isn’t great for the carbon footprint, but if people want to leave planet Earth they are welcome to do so. My concern is that such visions are being presented as a benefit for all of human society.
After Hawking’s speech to the Starmus Festival, audience members put it to him that it would be better to spend our money on solving the problems of this planet. Hawking’s view is also one that is likely very enticing for a few, but alienating for many. This is partly because of the hopelessness of the apocalyptic vision for planet Earth, which is his starting point. This gloomy scenario can foster ambivalence by belittling what we can each do in the face of such enormous problems.
Hawking also puts too much emphasis on technology. The problem with sustainability visions that rely on tech advancements is they rarely factor in the complex task of sustaining conducive social-ecological relations. Yes, humans may eventually invent nuclear fusion, or a great way to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. But we’ll invent harmful things too, providing even more ways to trash the planet. Which sets of technologies are more significant will be a question of politics, not science.
It can be very difficult to face up to the social and ecological challenges that scientists have outlined and still develop some enthusiasm for positive “approach goals” instead of negative “avoidance goals”. New technologies are part of the positive picture, but too much tech talk is a distraction.
As we each develop our own view about what a positive future would look like, it’s clear that the real innovation must be in the ways we organise ourselves and live together on Earth – as there’s not much hope in only aiming for a life on Mars.
MIT graduate students were recently honored at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage Design Competition Forum. The students took part in a year long challenge to “design a commercially enabled habitable module for use in low Earth orbit that would be extensible for future use as a Mars transit vehicle.”
The project is known as Managed, Reconfigurable, In-space Nodal Assembly, or MARINA. The project would serve as a primary anchor tenant and NASA as a temporary co-anchor tenant for 10 years. NASA estimated the cost of operating MARINA at $360 million per year, which is significantly cheaper than maintaining the International Space Station and surprisingly feasible. In contract, the International Space Station costs approximately 3 billion per year to maintain.
“MARINA’s flagship anchor tenant, a luxury Earth-facing eight-room space hotel complete with bar, restaurant, and gym, will make orbital space holidays a reality,”
The primary reason for ideation of a space hotel is to generate revenue and help with recurring maintenance costs. The station would also undergo other revenue generating activities such as the rental of serviced berths on external International Docking Adapter ports for customer-owned modules, and the rental of interior modularized rack space to smaller companies that provide contracted services to station occupants. All of those activities have sub applications such as satellite repair, in-space fabrication, food production, and funded research.
The design of the station is unique in allowing for multiple inflatable modules to come together: “Modularized service racks connect any point on MARINA to any other point via the extended IDSS interface. This enables companies of all sizes to provide products and services in space to other companies, based on terms determined by the open market,” explains MARINA team lead Matthew Moraguez, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Together these decisions provide scalability, reliability, and efficient technology development benefits to MARINA and NASA.”
But of course, it also makes the dream of a space vacation a reality. “MARINA’s flagship anchor tenant, a luxury Earth-facing eight-room space hotel complete with bar, restaurant, and gym, will make orbital space holidays a reality,” says Valentina Sumini, a postdoc at MIT who contributed to the architectural concept for the station.
NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, is an X-ray telescope launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early June 2017. Installed on the International Space Station, by mid-July it will commence its scientific work – to study the exotic astrophysical objects known as neutron stars and examine whether they could be used as deep-space navigation beacons for future generations of spacecraft.
What are neutron stars? When stars at least eight times more massive than the Sun exhaust all the fuel in their core through thermonuclear fusion reactions, the pressure of gravity causes them to collapse. The supernova explosion that results ejects most of the star’s material into the far reaches of space. What remains forms either a neutron star or a black hole.
I study neutron stars because of their rich range of astrophysical phenomena and the many areas of physics to which they are connected. What makes neutron stars extremely interesting is that each star is about 1.5 times the mass of the Sun, but only about 25km in diameter – the size of a single city. When you cram that much mass into such a small volume, the matter is more densely packed than that of an atomic nucleus. So, for example, while the nucleus of a helium atom has just two neutrons and two protons, a neutron star is essentially a single nucleus made up of 1057 neutrons and 1056 protons.
Exotic physics impossible on Earth
We can use neutron stars to probe properties of nuclear physics that cannot be investigated in laboratories on Earth. For example, some current theories predict that exotic particles of matter, such as hyperons and deconfined quarks, can appear at the high densities that are present in neutron stars. Theories also indicate that at temperatures of a billion degrees Celsius, protons in the neutron star become superconducting and neutrons, without charge, become superfluid.
The magnetic field of neutron stars is extreme as well, possibly the strongest in the universe, and billions of times stronger than anything created in laboratories. While the gravity at the surface of a neutron star may not be as strong as that near a black hole, neutron stars still create major distortions in spacetime and can be sources of gravitational waves, which were inferred from research into neutron stars in the 1970s, and confirmed from black holes by the LIGO experiments recently.
The main focus of NICER is to accurately measure the mass and radius of several neutron stars – and, although the telescope will observe other types of astronomical objects, those of us studying neutron stars hope NICER will provide us with unique insights into these fascinating objects and their physics. NICER will measure how the brightness of a neutron star changes according to its energy, and how it changes as the star rotates, revealing different parts of the surface. These observations will be compared to theoretical models based on properties of the star such as mass and radius. Accurate determinations of mass and radius will provide a vital test of nuclear theory.
A GPS for deep space
Another aspect of neutron stars that could prove important for future space travel is their rotation– and this will also be tested by NICER. Rotating neutron stars, known as pulsars, emit beams of radiation like a lighthouse and are seen to spin as fast as 716 times per second. This rotation rate in some neutron stars is more stable than the best atomic clocks we have on Earth. In fact, it is this characteristic of neutron stars that led to the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system in 1992 – three Earth-sized planets revolving around a neutron star.
The NICER mission, using a part of the telescope called SEXTANT, will test whether the extraordinary regularity and stability of neutron star rotation could be used as a network of navigation beacons in deep space. Neutron stars could thus serve as natural satellites contributing to a Galactic (rather than Global) Positioning System and could be relied upon by future manned and unmanned spacecraft to navigate among the stars.
NICER will operate for 18 months, but it is hoped that NASA will continue to support its operation afterwards, especially if it can deliver on its ambitious scientific goals. I hope so too, because NICER combines and greatly improves upon the invaluable capabilities of previous X-ray spacecraft – RXTE, Chandra, and XMM-Newton – that are used to uncover neutron stars’ mysteries and reveal properties of fundamental physics.
The first neutron star, a pulsar, was discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. It would be fitting to obtain a breakthrough on neutron stars in this 50th anniversary year.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA has delayed the first launch of its heavy-payload rocket until 2019 and decided against an idea floated by the White House to put astronauts aboard the capsule that is set to fly around the moon, the U.S. space agency said on Friday.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had hoped to launch the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket in November 2018. The rocket will send the deep-space Orion capsule on a high lunar orbit.
The launch is part of NASA’s long-term program to use the rocket to get astronauts and equipment to Mars.
In February, at the behest of President Donald Trump’s administration, NASA began to weigh the implications of adding a two-person crew for the trial flight.
The conclusion of the study was to wait until a second flight before adding a crew, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said.
The research “really reaffirmed that the baseline plan we have in place was the best way for us to go,” he told reporters on a conference call.
Adding systems to support a crew would have cost NASA $600 million to $900 million more and would likely have delayed the flight to 2020, he said.
Even without a crew, the SLS will not be ready to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida until 2019, Lightfoot said, adding that the agency would have a more specific timeframe in about a month.
The delay would push back the rocket’s second flight beyond 2021, said NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier.
The delays are largely due to technical issues encountered during the development of SLS and Orion, as well as tornado damage to the rocket’s manufacturing plant in New Orleans.
By the end of the next fiscal year on September 30, 2018, NASA will have spent $23 billion on the rocket, capsule, launch site and support systems, according to an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.
That excludes $9 billion spent on the mothballed Constellation lunar exploration program, which included initial development of the Orion and a second heavy-lift rocket.
Initially, the SLS rocket, which uses engines left over from the space shuttle program and shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters, will have the capacity to put about 77 tons (70 metric tons) into an orbit about 100 miles (160 km) above Earth.
Later versions are expected to carry nearly twice that load.
“We’re really building a system,” Gerstenmaier said. “It is much, much more than one flight.”
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Andrew Hay)
Earth lives in its own little bubble so to speak, cut off from the vast majority of the universe due to the Sun’s solar wind. This forms the heliosphere, a spherical bubble. This bubble was previously thought to have a long tail, but is now thought to be smaller and rounder.
The sun’s magnetic field is controlled by high-speed particles, or wind. This wind creates pressure, producing a bubble known as the heliosphere. The sphere holds the interstellar medium. Part of the reason the Voyager 1 was such a significant journey was that it passed beyond the heliosphere and into interstellar space. This breakthrough helped scientists measure the heliosphere’s boundaries in two directions.
Rethinking the Size and Shape of the Heliosphere
A recent article in Nature Astronomy spoke about the redefining of the heliosphere’s shape. Instead of having a comet-like tail, the heliosphere is a strong bubble with a powerful magnetic field. While this makes the heliosphere stronger, it also makes it much smaller than previously thought.
Most of the evidence comes directly from the Cassini spacecraft. The data the unmanned spaceship is collecting on its travels is nowhere near the edge of our heliosphere. While the spaceship is mostly designed to collect data, it is also being used to analyze partials trapped within Saturn’s magnetosphere.
The sun has an 11-year cycle, with a 2 to 3 year delay. The strength of the solar wind depends on where the sun is in the cycle and how the neutral atoms are bouncing back and forth, Astronomers previously believed that the delay formed a trailing heliosphere, rather than a circle.
Studies in the past have tried to challenge heliosphere theories. While a 2009 study suggested the spherical shape, these reports lacked any concrete evidence until the Cassini’s data had been pulled. This is a huge way to end its orbit around Saturn before returning to Earth.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent the closest-ever images of Saturn on Thursday after surviving its first plunge inside the planet’s rings, the U.S. space agency said.
A stream of pictures showing Saturn’s swirling clouds, massive hurricane and odd six-sided vortex weather system were transmitted back to Earth by Cassini, which has been exploring Saturn for 13 years.
Now in its final laps around Saturn, Cassini dove through the narrow gap between the planet and its innermost ring on Wednesday, where no spacecraft has ever gone before. It was the first of 22 planned close encounters to bring the robotic probe into unexplored territory between Saturn’s cloud tops and its rings.
“Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement.
Cassini is expected to photograph several small inner moons and study the planet’s winds, clouds, auroras and gravity. The information could help scientists find the source of Saturn’s magnetic field, determine how fast the gas giant rotates and figure out what lies beneath its layers of clouds.
NASA officials are not certain Cassini will survive all its ring dives. The gap between Saturn and the rings is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) wide and likely littered with ice particles.
Cassini is traveling through the gap at a relative speed of about some 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) so even small particles striking the spacecraft can be deadly.
To protect itself, Cassini’s dish-shaped communications antenna was temporarily repositioned to serve as a shield. The spacecraft will make similar maneuvers during its subsequent dives, the next of which is scheduled for Tuesday.
On its final dive on Sept. 15, Cassini is slated to destroy itself by flying directly into Saturn’s crushing atmosphere.
During its first pass inside the rings, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) from the top of Saturn’s clouds and within 200 miles (300 km) of its innermost ring.
Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004, but is running low on fuel.
NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with any ocean-bearing moons that have the potential to support indigenous microbial life.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Letitia Stein and Jonathan Oatis)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft soared past Saturn’s biggest moon for the last time on Saturday, tapping its gravity to slingshot into a series of exploratory dives inside the planet’s rings, followed by a final fatal plunge into the gas giant.
After nearly 20 years of traveling in space, Cassini used the gravitational tug of Titan, a moon resembling primordial Earth, to hurl itself into a new orbit that will pass through an unexplored region between Saturn’s cloud tops and its rings.
The spacecraft is expected to make the first of 22 dives between the planet and its rings on Wednesday. During the last dive on Sept. 15, Cassini is slated to destroy itself by flying directly into Saturn’s crushing atmosphere.
Cassini’s final run was set into motion early on Saturday by its 127th and final pass by Titan, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.
At its closest approach, NASA projections had Cassini flying 608 miles (979 km) above Titan, zipping by at a relative speed of 13,000 miles per hour (21,000 km per hour).
“Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s orbit around Saturn, shrinking it slightly, so that instead of passing just outside the rings, the spacecraft will begin its finale dives which pass just inside the rings,” NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.
During the dives, Cassini will measure how much ice and other materials are in the rings and determine their chemical composition. That information will help scientists learn how the rings formed.
Cassini also will study Saturn’s atmosphere and take measurements to determine the size of the planet’s rocky core.
Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004, but is running low on fuel.
NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with Titan, the ocean-bearing moon Enceladus or any other moon that has the potential to support indigenous microbial life.
By destroying the spacecraft, NASA will ensure that any hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini will not contaminate the moons for future study.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Letitia Stein and Jonathan Oatis)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts made a parachute landing in Kazakhstan on Monday, wrapping up a nearly six-month mission aboard the International Space Station, a NASA TV broadcast showed.
The Russian Soyuz capsule, which left the station shortly before 4 a.m. EDT, touched down southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, at 7:20 a.m. EDT.
Seated in the capsule were returning station commander Shane Kimbrough of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko from Russian space agency Roscosmos.
“It’s really neat to be part of something this big, something bigger than ourselves … even bigger than a nation,” Kimbrough said during a change-of-command ceremony on Sunday. “We get the ability up here to interact with things that actually benefit all of humanity. It’s really humbling.”
Three crew members remain aboard the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. In command is NASA’s Peggy Whitson, who on April 24 will break the 534-day record for the most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut.
Whitson, a veteran of two previous missions on the station, is the first woman to hold the post of commander twice.
Whitson, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and France’s Thomas Pesque will be joined by two new crew members on April 20.
The U.S. and Russian space agencies agreed last week to extend Whitson’s mission by three months.
Russia is reducing its station cadre to two from three members until its new science laboratory launches to the space station next year, the head of Roscosmos said last week at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Whitson will return to Earth in September, having amassed a career U.S. record of 666 days in orbit. Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who has 878 days in orbit, is the world’s most experienced space flier.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A five-foot (1.5-meter) debris shield being installed on the International Space Station floated away on Thursday during a spacewalk by two veteran U.S. astronauts, a NASA TV broadcast showed.
Peggy Whitson, who became the world’s most experienced female spacewalker during the outing, told ground control teams that a bag containing the debris shield floated away at about 10 a.m. EDT/1400 GMT.
At the time, Whitson, 57, and station commander Shane Kimbrough, 49, were about midway through a planned 6.5-hour spacewalk to prepare a docking port for upcoming commercial space taxis and to tackle other maintenance tasks.
It was the eighth spacewalk for Whitson, who surpassed the 50-hour, 40-minute record total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut previously held by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.
Cameras on the station tracked the debris shield bag as it sailed into the distance. NASA said engineers determined it posed no safety threat to the astronauts or to the facility, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.
No other details were immediately available about how the shield, which weighs 18 pounds (8 kg) and measures 63.6-by-23.4- by-2.6 inches (162-by-59-by-7 cm), was lost.
“Teams are focused on completing the (spacewalk) and will review the events as they unfolded after it is completed,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot wrote in an email.
Whitson and Kimbrough were working on a docking port that will eventually be used by space taxis being developed by Boeing and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies.
The pair installed three other debris shields during their spacewalk and fitted a temporary cover over the docking port where the lost shield would have gone.
While not a perfect fit, the cover will help protect the station from impacts and provide thermal shielding, NASA said.
Spacewalkers occasionally lose small items like nuts and screws, but rarely do large objects slip away. The last such occasion was in 2008 when an astronaut lost hold of her tool bag while struggling with a jammed solar panel.
The lost debris shield will eventually be pulled back into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Until then, it joins more than 21,000 other pieces of orbiting trash and debris that are big enough to be tracked by radar and cameras on Earth.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler)
In an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking revealed that he would be heading into space with commercial spaceline Virgin Galactic.
“I have already completed a zero-gravity flight which allowed me to float, weightless,” Hawking said. “But my ultimate ambition is to fly into space. I thought no one would take me, but Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic and I said ‘yes’ immediately.”
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, expressed a wish to send Hawking to the stars as recently as 2015.
“Professor Stephen Hawking is one of the people I admire most in the world, an undisputed genius who has opened our eyes to the wonders of the universe, while also happening to be a kind and delightful man,” Branson said in a statement at the time. “He is the only person I have given a free ticket with Virgin Galactic, and he is signed up to fly as a Future Astronaut with us if his health permits it.”
A trip into space would likely be some years into the future and would not be without complications for the 75-year-old cosmologist. Professor Hawking’s health is of significant concern as he has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since the age of 21. The motor neuron disease kickstarts a degenerative process which affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, particularly the nerves that govern muscle movement. Otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the disease is named for the 1939 Hall of Fame baseball player who forged a public battle with ALS, ultimately succumbing to it at age 37.
The launch, scientists hope, should yield vital information on the effect of gravity on motor neurons. The g-force, or acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface, is 1 g; our mobility and organ function has adapted to the conditions here. As space flight becomes more accessible, humans will be exposed to different kinds of gravity conditions. Gravity biologists are already investigating how “altering gravity can have profound effects on the body, particularly the development of muscles, but the reasons and biology behind gravity’s effect are not fully known.”
HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Orbiting the earth at more than 500 kilometers (300 miles), a tiny satellite with a laboratory shrunk to the size of a tissue box is helping scientists carry out experiments that take gravity out of the equation.
The technology was launched into space last month by SpacePharma, a Swiss-Israeli company, which on Thursday announced that its first experiments have been completed successfully.
In space, with hardly any interference from earth’s gravity, cells and molecules behave differently, helping researchers make discoveries in fields from medicine to agriculture.
Nestle turned to zero gravity – or what scientists refer to as microgravity – to perfect the foam in its chocolate mousse and coffee, while drugmakers like Eli Lilly have used it to improve drug designs.
Usually experiments are sent up to the International Space Station and carried out with the help of astronauts, or they are conducted on parabolic airplane flights that enjoy short bursts of weightlessness.
SpacePharma says its miniature lab is a new way for researchers to work in microgravity for extended periods.
“Everything can be done remotely while the system is in outer space,” said founder Yossi Yamin. “We upload the link with the command files to the lab and the experiment takes place.”
Clients then receive data and images directly from the experiments, which are carried out on custom-built glass chips and can be run multiple times to test different reactions.
The satellite currently in space holds four experiments, the first being done for a German research institute.
A second launch, also with four experiments, is scheduled for August and includes research for a top tier pharmaceutical company, Yamin said.
By next year he hopes to begin sending up satellites that each hold some 160 experiments.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Ken Ferris)
These raw, unprocessed images of Saturn’s tiny moon, Pan, were taken on March 7, 2017, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The flyby had a close-approach distance of 24,572 kilometers (15,268 miles).
These images are the closest images ever taken of Pan and will help to characterize its shape and geology.
NASA is assessing the feasibility of adding a crew to the first integrated flight of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). NASA is building new deep space capabilities to take humans farther into the solar system than we have ever traveled, and ultimately to Mars.
Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced Feb. 15 that he had asked William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, to conduct the study, and it is now underway. NASA expects it to be completed in early spring.
The assessment will review the technical feasibility, risks, benefits, additional work required, resources needed and any associated schedule impacts to add crew to the first mission.
“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier. “This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”
The assessment is evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of this concept with regards to short- and long-term goals of achieving deep space exploration capabilities for the nation. It will assume launching two crew members in mid-2019, and consider adjustments to the current EM-1 mission profile.
During the first mission of SLS and Orion, NASA plans to send the spacecraft into a distant lunar retrograde orbit, which will require additional propulsion moves, a flyby of the moon and return trajectory burns. The mission is planned as a challenging trajectory to test maneuvers and the environment of space expected on future missions to deep space. If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory.
NASA is investigating hardware changes associated with the system that will be needed if crew are to be added to EM-1. As a starting condition, NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight. The agency will also consider moving up the ascent abort test for Orion before the mission.
Regardless of the outcome for the study, the feasibility assessment does not conflict with NASA’s ongoing work schedules for the first two missions. Hardware for the first flight has already started arriving at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the missions will launch from the agency’s historic Pad 39B.
NASA recently completed the installation of the final topmost level in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy, completing the 10 levels of work platforms, 20 platform halves altogether, that will surround the rocket and the Orion spacecraft and allow access during processing for missions. In the last month, major construction was completed on the largest new SLS structural test stand, and engineers are now installing equipment needed to test the rocket’s biggest fuel tank. The stand is critical for ensuring SLS’s liquid hydrogen tank can withstand the extreme forces of launch and ascent on its first flight. In a lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, engineers simulated conditions that astronauts in spacesuits would experience when the Orion spacecraft is vibrating during launch on its way to deep space destinations to assess how well the crew can interact with the displays and controls they will use to monitor Orion’s systems and operate the spacecraft when necessary.
NASA is leveraging the very best the country has to offer on its deep space exploration plans, and it’s advancing the national economy. The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with record levels of private investment in space, will help put the agency and America in a position to unlock the mysteries of space and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s space agency said on Wednesday it had ordered extra checks to be made on its Proton-M rockets, meaning it might be forced to delay some satellite launches this year.
Roscosmos, the Russian equivalent of NASA, made the announcement after the Kommersant daily reported that manufacturing problems had been detected in some Proton-M rockets and that some launches were likely to be delayed by several months “in a best case scenario.”
European, U.S. and Asian firms rely heavily on Russia to launch their commercial satellites, and a Roscosmos source told Kommersant that Moscow planned to launch 27 rockets this year, eight of which were Proton-Ms.
“Additional tests (on the Proton-M) are being carried out. That explains the possible delay in launches,” said a spokesman for Roscosmos, without providing details. Igor Burenkov, a spokesman for the corporation, said it would become clear after the tests if there would definitely be delays and for how long.
Kommersant reported that the problem was linked to components used in the rockets’ engines and concerns that some of them were not sufficiently heat-resistant.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down the problems, saying Roscosmos did suffer some setbacks, but that it also had great success in many areas.
An unmanned Russian cargo ship loaded with supplies for the International Space Station broke apart about six minutes after lift off in December. It was carried by a Soyuz rocket.
(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov/Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
NASA and a group of researchers including Stephen Hawking have teamed up to develop a nano-starship made from a single silicon chip. This starship known as ‘StarShip’ can travel at one-fifth the speed of light.
Theoretically this craft could arrive at our nearest star system (Alpha Centauri) in just 20 years. A conventional spacecraft is roughly 100 times slower than this, and the same journey would take 2000 years.
The announcement was made by Hawking back in April, and further developments in lasers that propel nano-spacecraft will help to improve it’s potential speed. The craft is just the size of a postage stamp, its name is ‘StarChip’.
Current obstacles for the craft include radiation, which could cause a series of defects in the chips outside layers“where they degrade device performance”, says the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Long term exposure to radiation of this type could cause leaks in the craft’s transistor, and the team is currently exploring options to minimize this problem. Adding any shielding would add weight to the craft and slow its journey through space – leaving it as is could cause the craft to fail in deep space, so this is a problem that needs to be solved.
If you have ever seen a movie about space exploration, you probably have a couple of ideas about the effect of travelling in space stuck in your head. Most people grew up watching SF movies in which people aged more slowly in space than they did on Earth – it is the well-known twin paradox. But what are the real consequences our astronauts have to deal with while in a zero-gravity setting, and maybe even longer?
Apart from the weightlessness, strong radiation, lack of space, isolation and increased gravity are only a few of the conditions that define what it’s like to spend time in space. They all, however, have a significant impact on the astronaut’s physical condition. The direct consequence of a zero-gravity setting is the fact that you don’t have to strain your body in order to pull against the forces of gravity. This results in a loss of calcium, which is essential for the density of your bones. The end result is a weaker skeleton.
When it comes to radiation, its effects on the human body can be fatal even on Earth. Space radiation usually grows stronger the more distance you put between yourself and your home planet. Being exposed to it can lead to damaging of the central nervous system, which makes it harder for the person to control both their movements and cognitive functions. There is also a risk of developing a degenerative tissue disease, such as circulatory and cardiac diseases.
Apart from making daily life more depressing than it usually is, lack of space has disadvantages that can directly affect the physical state of astronauts. According to NASA’s research, cramped environments are what makes microorganisms thrive. This makes perfect sense, since the less room you have, the easier it gets for them to transfer from person to person, the end result of which is the affliction of the entire space station.
You might wonder how isolation could affect the physical state of the human body, but the answer is actually quite simple. Spending a large amount of time away from people and your normal surroundings leads to a certain decrease in mood. In some cases, it even results in depression and significant changes in behavior. Since the state your mind has great influence on the way your body deals with its misfortunes, isolation can be the main cause of fatigue and insomnia, as well as a number of psychiatric disorders.
And last but not least, the question of how increased gravity, such as that experienced during space travel, affects the human body. The feeling that you yourself are a lot heavier than you were just a moment ago is weird, but it also causes both stress and pain. All in all, travelling through and spending time in space couldn’t be called a pleasant experience for the human body.
Some of us have seen videos where astronauts are preparing or eating their meals. While it’s interesting to see this happening in a weightless environment, it also brings up some questions. One question, in particular, is, what do astronauts really eat? Do they like what they’re eating? Like everything else that goes along with being in space, it’s likely the food takes some getting used to as well.
Because food won’t stay in one place in space, and the idea of squeezing baby-food like meals from tubes into mouths isn’t appealing, freeze-drying was developed. The technique involves cooking each meal or snack, quickly freezing, and then dehydrating it immediately. A special dehydration chamber removes all the water, so no refrigeration is necessary. Astronauts squeeze water into most freeze-dried foods to prepare them. Others, like fruit, can remain dry.
Just like on Earth, astronauts can enjoy the use of condiments to add flavor to their foods. Condiments found most often aboard flights include ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, pepper, and salt. All condiments, including salt and pepper, are in liquid form and are in packets. If salt and pepper weren’t in liquid form, their granules would float away instead of staying on the food.
Traditional cups simply won’t work in space because the liquid will just float away. Therefore, special pouches contain dehydrated drinks with built-in nozzles or straws. Astronauts reconstitute the drink from powder into liquid form by squeezing water into the pouch. Some of the drinks include protein shakes to help aid in ensuring astronauts are receiving adequate nutrients while on their space missions.
Expert nutritionists develop nutritional plans for astronauts before they go on their missions to ensure they’re receiving the vitamins and nutrients necessary to conduct their work and remain healthy. Despite these efforts, astronauts sometimes still report digestive issues.
While it may seem astronauts are eating differently than we do on Earth, their meals are pretty much the same as ours. They’re eating proteins, fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates. There are some restrictions, of course, because of payload and waste elimination.
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Billionaire Internet investor Yuri Milner announced another $100 million initiative on Tuesday to better understand the cosmos, this time by deploying thousands of tiny spacecraft to travel to our nearest neighboring star system and send back pictures.
If successful, scientists could determine if Alpha Centauri, a star system about 25 trillion miles away, contains an Earth-like planet capable of sustaining life.
The catch: It could take years to develop the project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, and there is no guarantee it will work.
Tuesday’s announcement, made with cosmologist Stephen Hawking, comes less than a year after the announcement of Breakthrough Listen. That decade-long, $100 million project, also backed by Milner, monitors radio signals for signs of intelligent life across the universe.
Breakthrough Starshot involves deploying small light-propelled vehicles to carry equipment like cameras and communication equipment. Scientists hope the vehicles, known as nanocraft, will eventually fly at 20 percent of the speed of light, more than a thousand times faster than today’s spacecraft.
“The thing would look like the chip from your cell phone with this very thin gauzy light sail,” said Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, who is leading the project. “It would be something like 10, 12 feet across.”
He envisions sending a larger conventional spacecraft containing thousands of nanocraft into orbit, and then launching the nanocraft one by one, he said in an interview.
The idea has precedents with mixed results.
Two years ago, Cornell University’s KickSat fizzled after the craft carrrying 104 micro-satellites into space failed to release them. The plan was to let the tiny satellites orbit and collect data for a few weeks.
Worden acknowledges challenges, including the nanocraft surviving impact on launch. They would then endure 20 years of travel through the punishing environment of interstellar space, with obstacles such as dust collisions.
“The problems remaining to be solved – any one of them are showstoppers,” Worden said.
Governments likely would not take on the research due to its speculative nature, he said, yet the technology is promising enough to merit pursuing.
If the nanocraft reach the star system and succeed in taking photographs, it would take about another four years to transmit them back to Earth.
A onetime physics PhD student in Moscow who dropped out to move to the United States in 1990, Milner is one of a handful of technology tycoons devoting time and money to space exploration. He is known for savvy investments, including in social network Facebook Inc and Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi.
(Reporting by Sarah McBride; Editing by Tom Brown)
A recent news release from NASA details the testing of game-changing e-sail technology.
Testing has started at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for a potentially revolutionary propulsion system that could send spacecraft to the edge of our solar system (the region known as the heliopause) faster than ever.
Early test results should provide modeling data for the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (HERTS). The proposed concept from HERTS would be a propellant-less solution capable of harnessing solar wind to travel to interstellar space.
“The sun releases protons and electrons into the solar wind at very high speeds — 400 to 750 kilometers per second,” said Bruce Wiegmann an engineer in Marshall’s Advanced Concepts Office, the principal investigator for the HERTS E-Sail. “The E-Sail would use these protons to propel the spacecraft.”
Extending E-Sail that would electrostatically repel the fast moving protons of the solar wind. The momentum exchange produced as the protons are repelled by the positively charged wires would create the spacecraft’s thrust. Each tether is extremely thin, only 1 millimeter — the width of a standard paperclip — and very long, nearly 12 and a half miles — almost 219 football fields. As the spacecraft slowly rotates at one revolution per hour, centrifugal forces will stretch the tethers into position.
This testing is taking place in the High Intensity Solar Environment Test system which was designed to examine rates of proton and electron collisions with positively charged wires. In a controlled plasma chamber that simulates plasma in space, the team uses a stainless steel wire as the analogue for a lightweight aluminum wire. Although stainless steel is denser than aluminum, it’s non-corrosive properties will mimic aluminum in space as well allow for more testing without the fear of degradation.
Engineers are measuring deflections of protons from the energized charged wire within the chamber to improve modeling data that will be scaled up and applied to future development of E-Sail technology. The tests are also measuring the amount of electrons attracted to the wire. This information will be used to develop the specifications for the required electron gun, or an electron emitter, that will expel excess electrons from the spacecraft to maintain the wire’s positive voltage bias, which is critical to its operation as a propulsion system.
This concept builds upon the electric sail invention of Dr. Pekka Janhunen of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and the current technologies required for an E-Sail integrated propulsion system are at a low technology readiness level. If the results from plasma testing, modeling, and wire deployer investigations prove promising after the current two-year investigation, there is still a great deal of work necessary to design and build this new type of propulsion system. The earliest actual use of the technology is probably at least a decade away.
The HERTS E-Sail concept is being studied in response to the National Academy of Science’s 2012 Heliophysics Decadal Survey, a study conducted by experts from NASA, industry, academia and government agencies, that identified advanced propulsion as the main technical hurdle for future exploration of the heliosphere. The survey, which offered the agency a road map of the heliophysics community’s priorities for 2013-2022, highlighted the need for propulsion systems that could reach the edge of our solar system significantly faster than in the past.
To send a scientific probe on a deep space journey, the sail would have to have a large effective area. Space travel is generally measured in astronomical units, or the distance from Earth to the sun. At 1 AU, the E-Sail would have an effective area of about 232 square miles, slightly smaller than the city of Chicago. The effective area would increase to more than 463 square miles– similar to Los Angeles — at 5 AU.
This increase in area would lead to continued acceleration much longer than comparable propulsion technologies. For example, when solar sail spacecraft reach the asteroid belt at 5 AU, the energy of the solar photons dissipates and acceleration stops. Wiegmann believes the E-Sail would continue to accelerate well beyond that.
“The same concerns don’t apply to the protons in the solar wind,” he said. “With the continuous flow of protons, and the increased area, the E-Sail will continue to accelerate to 16-20 AU — at least three times farther than the solar sail. This will create much higher speeds.”
In 2012, NASA’s Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to ever cross the heliopause and reach interstellar space. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 took almost 35 years to make its 121 AU journey. The goal of HERTS is to develop an E-Sail that could make the same journey in less than one-third that time.
“Our investigation has shown that an interstellar probe mission propelled by an E-Sail could travel to the heliopause in just under 10 years,” he said. “This could revolutionize the scientific returns of these types of missions.”
The HERTS E-Sail concept development and testing is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, which encourages visionary ideas that could transform future missions with the creation of radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts. NIAC projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day “change the possible” in aerospace.
Selected as a Phase II NIAC Fellow in 2015, the HERTS team was awarded an additional $500,000 to further test the E-Sail and possibly change not only the way NASA travels to the heliopause, but also within our solar system.
“As the team studied this concept, it became clear that the design is flexible and adaptable,” said Wiegmann. “Mission and vehicle designers can trade off wire length, number of wires and voltage levels to fit their needs — inner planetary, outer planetary or heliopause. The E-Sail is very scalable.”
Steering can be accomplished by modulating the wire’s voltage individually as the spacecraft rotates. Affecting a difference in force applied on different portions of the E-Sail, would give engineers the ability to steer the spacecraft, similar to the sails of a boat.
Scott Kelly has just returned from a 340 day trip aboard the International Space Station.
It was a record breaking mission for the duration spent on the International Space Station, and Kelly along with fellow crew member Mikhail Kornienko have provided NASA with valuable insight for research into the effects of micro-gravity on the human body.
But along the way, they had some fun. Kelly was one of the internets biggest sensations of 2016, and following his Twitter account was a pleasure for any who chose to tag along.
Now that he’s back, we decided to honor his arrival with 10 of his most amazing images from space. Check them out below, and follow Scott Kelly on Twitter right now.
Algeria’s Tassili N’Ajjer National Park
The Caribbean Archipelagus
The First Ever Flower Grown In Space
Wadi Al-Jadid, Egypt
The Light Of The Sun Reflecting On The Atmosphere
The Aurora Borealis
The Milky Way Seen From The ISS
A Saltwater Lake La’nga Co in Tibet