On Friday, January 22nd, commercial space company Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its reusable rocket, New Shepard, at their launch facility in Texas. This is the second flight for New Shepard, showing that reusable rockets are on their way to becoming the launch system of choice. New Shepard launched, travelled to apogee at 101.7 kilometres, (63.19 miles) and then descended to land safely at their site in West Texas. This is the first successful reuse of a rocket in history.
Reusable rockets are an important development for space travel. Rockets are enormously expensive, and having to trash each rocket after a single use makes commercial space flight a real challenge. Blue Origin—and other companies like SpaceX—are blazing a trail to cheaper space flight with their reusable designs. This is great, not only for all the good sciencey reasons that we love so much, but because eventually civilian space enthusiasts may be able to travel past the Karman Line without having to sell all their possessions to do so. (Reserve your ticket here.) Continue reading “Blue Origin Reaches Another Milestone: Reusable Rocket Launches and Lands Safely”
The Royal Astronomical Society (RSA) has announced the discovery of a planet that orbits its star at a distance of 1 trillion kilometres. This is easily the furthest distance between a star and a planet ever found. For comparison, that’s 7,000 times further than the Earth is from the Sun. At that distance, a single orbit takes about 900,000 years, meaning that the planet has orbited its star less than 50 times.
If you’re thinking of having yourself cryogenically suspended and awakened in some future paradise, you might want to set your alarm clock for no later than 1,000 years from now. According to the BBC, Stephen Hawking will be saying this much in the 2016 Reith Lectures – a series of lectures organized by the BBC that explore the big challenges faced by humanity.
In Hawking’s first lecture, which will be broadcast on February 26th on the BBC, Hawking covers the topic of black holes, whether or not they have hair, and other concepts about these baffling objects.
But at the end of the lecture, he responded to audience questions about humanity’s capacity for self destruction. Hawking said that 1,000 years might be all we have until we meet our demise at the hands of our own scientific and technological advances.
As we have become increasingly advanced both scientifically and technologically, Hawking says, we will be creating “new ways that things can go wrong.” Hawking mentioned nuclear war, global warming, and genetically engineered viruses as things that could cause our extinction.
Through the Cold War, annihilation at the hands of our own nuclear weapons was a real danger. The threat of a nuclear launch in response to a real or perceived threat was real. The resulting retaliation and counter-retaliation was a risk faced by everyone on the planet. And the two superpowers had enough warheads between them to potentially wipe out life on Earth.
The USA and the USSR have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons in recent decades, but there are still enough warheads around to wipe us out. The possibility of a rogue state like North Korea setting off a nuclear confrontation is still very real. By the time Hawking’s 1,000 year time-frame has passed, we’ll either have solved this problem, or we won’t be here.
Earth is getting warmer, and though the Earth has warmed and cooled many times in its history, this time we only have ourselves to blame. We’ve been inadvertently enriching our atmosphere with carbon since the Industrial Revolution. All that carbon is creating a nice insulating layer around Earth, as it traps heat that would normally radiate into space. If we reach some of the “tipping points” that scientists talk about, like the melting of permafrost and the subsequent release of methane, we could be in real trouble.
Different climate engineering schemes have been thought up to counteract global warming, like seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective molecules, and having fleets of ships around the equator spraying sea mist into the air to partially block out the sun. Or even extracting carbon from the atmosphere. But how realistic or effective those counter-measures might be is not clear.
Genetically Engineered Viruses
As a weapon, a virus can be cheap and effective. There’ve been programs in the past to develop biological weapons. The temptation to use genetic science to create extremely deadly viruses may prove too great.
Smallpox and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers have been weaponized, and as our genetic manipulation abilities grow, it’s possible, or even likely, that somebody somewhere will attempt develop even more dangerous viral weapons. They may be doing it right now.
Hawking never mentioned AI in his talk, but it fits in with the discussion. As our machines get smarter and smarter, will they deduce that the only chance for survival is to remove or reduce the human population? Who knows. But Hawking himself, as well as other thinkers, have been warning us that there may be a catastrophic downside to our achievements in AI.
We may love the idea of driverless cars, and computer assistants like SIRI. But as numerous science fiction stories have warned us (Skynet in the Terminator series being my favorite,) it may be a small step from very helpful AI that protects us and makes our lives easier, to AI that decides existence would be a whole lot better without us pesky humans around.
The Technological Singularity is the point at which artificially intelligent systems “wake up” and become—more or less—conscious. These AI machines would start to improve themselves recursively, or build better and smarter machines. At this point, they would be a serious danger to humanity.
Drones are super popular right now. They flew off the shelves at Christmas, and they’re great toys. But once we start seeing drones with primitive but effective AI, patrolling the property of the wealthy, it’ll be time to start getting nervous.
Extinction May Have To Wait
As our scientific and technological prowess grows, we’ll definitely face new threats, just like Hawking says. But, that same progress may also protect us, or make us more resilient. Hawking says, “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognise the dangers and control them. I’m an optimist, and I believe we can.” So do we.
Maybe you’ll be able to hit the snooze button after all.
The intense radiation around Jupiter has shaped every aspect of the Juno mission, especially Juno’s orbit. Data shows that there is a gap between the radiation belts that encircle Jupiter, and Jupiter’s cloud tops. Juno will have to ‘thread the needle’ and travel through this gap, in order to minimize its exposure to radiation, and to fulfill its science objectives. Adding to the complexity of the Juno mission, is the fact that the design of the spacecraft, the scientific objectives, and the orbital requirements all shaped each other.
I wasn’t sure what question to start this interview with: How did the conditions around Jupiter, most notably its extreme radiation, shape Juno’s orbit? Or, how did the orbit necessary for Juno to survive Jupiter’s extreme radiation shape Juno’s science objectives? Or, finally, how did the science objectives shape Juno’s orbit?
Scott Bolton, NASA Principal Investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA
As you can see, the Juno mission seems like a bit of a Gordian knot. All three questions, I’m sure, had to be asked and answered several times, with the answers shaping the other questions. To help untangle this knot, I spoke to Scott Bolton, NASA’s Principal Investigator for the Juno mission. As the person responsible for the entire Juno mission, Scott has a complete understanding of Juno’s science objectives, Juno’s design, and the orbital path Juno will follow around Jupiter.
People often criticize the amount of money spent on space exploration. Sometimes it’s well-meaning friends and family who say that that money is wasted, and would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. In fact, that’s a whole cultural meme. You see it played out over and over in the comments section whenever mainstream media covers a space story.
While solving problems here on Earth is noble, and the right thing to do, it’s worth pointing out that the premier space exploration body on Earth, NASA, actually has a tiny budget. When you compare NASA’s budget to what people spend on cigarettes, NASA looks pretty good.
Ignoring for the moment the fact that we don’t know how to solve all the problems here on Earth, let’s look at NASA’s budget over the years, and compare it to something that is truly a waste of money: cigarettes and tobacco.
NASA is over 50 years old. In its first year, its budget was $89 million. (That’s about $732 million in today’s dollars.) In that same year, Americans spent about $6 billion on cigarettes and tobacco.
From 1969 to 1972, NASA’s Apollo Program landed 12 men on the Moon. They won the Space Race and established a moment that will echo through the ages, no matter what else humanity does: the first human footsteps anywhere other than Earth. In those four years, NASA’s combined budget was $14.8 billion. In that same time period, Americans spent over twice as much—$32 billion—on smoking.
In 1981, NASA launched its first space shuttle, the Columbia (STS-1). NASA’s budget that year was $5.5 billion. That same year, the American population spent about $17.4 billion on tobacco. That’s three times NASA’s budget. How many more shuttle flights could there have been? How much more science?
In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.) The Hubble has been called the most successful science project in history, and Universe Today readers probably don’t need to be told why. The Hubble is responsible for a laundry list of discoveries and observations, and has engaged millions of people around the world in space science and discovery. In that year, NASA had a budget of $12.4 billion. And smoking? In 1990, Americans smoked their way through $26.5 billion of tobacco.
In 2012, NASA had a budget of $16.8 billion. In that year, NASA successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on Mars, at a cost of $2.5 billion. Also that year, American lungs processed $44 billion worth of tobacco. That’s the equivalent of 17 Curiosity rovers!
There was an enormous scientific debate around where Curiosity should land, in order to maximize the science. Scientific teams competed to have their site chosen, and eventually the Gale Crater was selected as the most promising site. Gale is a meteor crater, and was chosen because it shows signs of running water, as well as evidence of layered geology including clays and minerals.
But other equally tantalizing sites were in contention, including Holden Crater, where a massive and catastrophic flood took place, and where ancient sediments lie exposed on the floor of the crater, ready for study. Or Mawrth Vallis, another site that suffered a massive flood, which exposed layers of clay minerals formed in the presence of water. With the money spent on tobacco in 2012 ($44 billion!) we could have had a top ten list of landing sites on Mars, and put a rover at each one.
Think of all that science.
NASA’s budget is always a source of controversy, and that’s certainly true of another of NASA’s big projects: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST.) Space enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the launch of the JWST, planned for October 2018. The JWST will take up residence at the second Lagrange Point (L2,) where it will spend 5-10 years studying the formation of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems from the Big Bang until now. It will also investigate the potential for life in other solar systems.
Initially the JWST’s cost was set at $1.6 billion and it was supposed to launch in 2011. But now it’s set for October 2018, and its cost has grown to $8.8 billion. It sounds outrageous, almost $9 billion for a space telescope, and Congress considered scrapping the entire project. But what’s even more outrageous is that Americans are projected to spend over $50 billion on tobacco in 2018.
When people in the future look back at NASA and what it was able to accomplish in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, they’ll think two things: First, they’ll think how amazing it was that NASA did what it did. The Moon landings, the Shuttle program, the Hubble, Curiosity, and the James Webb.
Then, they’ll be saddened by how much more could’ve been done collectively, if so much money hadn’t been wasted on something as deadly as smoking.
Each new probe we launch into space follows a finely-tuned, predetermined trajectory that opens up a new avenue of understanding into our solar system and our universe. The results from each probe shapes the objectives of the next. Each probe is built with maximum science in mind, and is designed to answer crucial questions and build our understanding of astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, and planetary studies.
The Juno probe is no different. When it arrives at Jupiter in July 2016, it will begin working on a checklist of scientific questions about Jupiter.
But there’s a problem.
Jupiter is enormous. And at it’s heart is a chunk of ice and rock, or so we think. Surrounding that is an enormous region of liquid metallic hydrogen. This core is 10 to 20 times as massive as Earth’s, and it’s rotating. As it rotates, it generates a powerful magnetic field that draws in particles from the sun, then whips them into a near-light-speed frenzy. This whirlwind of radiation devastates anything that gets too close.
Enter the tiny Juno spacecraft, about the size of a bus. Juno has to get close to Jupiter to do its work—within 5,000km (3,100 miles) above the cloud tops—and though it’s designed to weave its way carefully past Jupiter’s most dangerous radiation fields, its orbits will still expose it to the paper-shredder effect of those fields. There’s no way around it.
Juno Project Scientist Steve Levin, and Dave Stevenson from Caltech explain Juno’s orbiting pattern in this short video:
The most vulnerable part of Juno is the sensitive electronics that are the heart and brains of the spacecraft. Jupiter’s extreme radiation would quickly destroy Juno’s sensitive systems, and the Juno designers had to come up with a way to protect those components while Juno does its work. The solution? The titanium vault.
All kinds of materials and methods have been employed to protect spacecraft electronics, but this is the first time that titanium has been tried. Titanium is renowned for its light weight and its strength. It’s used in all kinds of demanding manufacturing applications here on Earth.
The titanium vault won’t protect Juno’s heart forever. In fact, some of the components are not expected to last the length of the mission. The radiation will slowly degrade the titanium, as high velocity particles punch microscopic holes in it. Bit by bit, radiation will perforate the vault, and the electronics within will be exposed. And as the electronic systems stop functioning, one by one, Juno will slowly become brain-dead, before plunging purposefully into Jupiter.
But Juno won’t die in vain. It will answer important questions about Jupiter’s core, atmospheric composition, planetary evolution, magnetosphere, polar auroras, gravitational field, and more. The spacecraft’s onboard camera, the Junocam, also promises to capture stunning images of Jupiter. But beyond all that, Juno—and its titanium vault—will show us how good we are at protecting spacecraft from extreme radiation.
Juno is still over 160 million km (100 million miles) from Jupiter and is fully functional. Once it arrives, it will insert itself into orbit and begin to do its job. How well it can do its job, and for how long, will depend on how effectively the titanium vault shields Juno’s heart.
When we think of space travel, we tend to picture a massive rocket blasting off from Earth, with huge blast streams of fire and smoke coming out the bottom, as the enormous machine struggles to escape Earth’s gravity. Rockets are our only option for escaping Earth’s gravity well—for now. But once a spacecraft has broken its gravitational bond with Earth, we have other options for powering them. Ion propulsion, long dreamed of in science fiction, is now used to send probes and spacecraft on long journeys through space.
NASA first began researching ion propulsion in the 1950’s. In 1998, ion propulsion was successfully used as the main propulsion system on a spacecraft, powering the Deep Space 1 (DS1) on its mission to the asteroid 9969 Braille and Comet Borrelly. DS1 was designed not only to visit an asteroid and a comet, but to test twelve advanced, high-risk technologies, chief among them the ion propulsion system itself.
Ion propulsion systems generate a tiny amount of thrust. Hold nine quarters in your hand, feel Earth’s gravity pull on them, and you have an idea how little thrust they generate. They can’t be used for launching spacecraft from bodies with strong gravity. Their strength lies in continuing to generate thrust over time. This means that they can achieve very high top speeds. Ion thrusters can propel spacecraft to speeds over 320,000 kp/h (200,000 mph), but they must be in operation for a long time to achieve that speed.
An ion is an atom or a molecule that has either lost or gained an electron, and therefore has an electrical charge. So ionization is the process of giving a charge to an atom or a molecule, by adding or removing electrons. Once charged, an ion will want to move in relation to a magnetic field. That’s at the heart of ion drives. But certain atoms are better suited for this. NASA’s ion drives typically use xenon, an inert gas, because there’s no risk of explosion.
In an ion drive, the xenon isn’t a fuel. It isn’t combusted, and it has no inherent properties that make it useful as a fuel. The energy source for an ion drive has to come from somewhere else. This source can be electricity from solar cells, or electricity generated from decay heat from a nuclear material.
Ions are created by bombarding the xenon gas with high energy electrons. Once charged, these ions are drawn through a pair of electrostatic grids—called lenses—by their charges, and are expelled out of the chamber, producing thrust. This discharge is called the ion beam, and it is again injected with electrons, to neutralize its charge. Here’s a short video showing how ion drives work:
Unlike a traditional chemical rocket, where its thrust is limited by how much fuel it can carry and burn, the thrust generated by an ion drive is only limited by the strength of its electrical source. The amount of propellant a craft can carry, in this case xenon, is a secondary concern. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft used only 10 ounces of xenon propellant—that’s less than a soda can—for 27 hours of operation.
In theory, there is no limit to the strength of the electrical source powering the drive, and work is being done to develop even more powerful ion thrusters than we currently have. In 2012, NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) operated at 7000w for over 43,000 hours, in comparison to the ion drive on DS1 that used only 2100w. NEXT, and designs that will surpass it in the future, will allow spacecraft to go on extended missions to multiple asteroids, comets, the outer planets, and their moons.
Missions using ion propulsion include NASA’s Dawn mission, the Japanese Hayabusa mission to asteroid 25143 Itokawa, and the upcoming ESA missions Bepicolombo, which will head to Mercury in 2017, and LISA Pathfinder, which will study low frequency gravitational waves.
With the constant improvement in ion propulsion systems, this list will only grow.
“Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.”
What DaVinci was talking about, though it wasn’t called it at the time, was biomimicry. Biomimicry is the practice of using designs from the natural world to solve technological and engineering problems. Were he alive today, there’s no doubt that Mr. DaVinci would be a big proponent of biomimicry.
Nature is more fascinating the deeper you look into it. When we look deeply into nature, we’re peering into a laboratory that is over 3 billion years old, where solutions to problems have been implemented, tested, and revised over the course of evolution. That’s why biomimicry is so elegant: on Earth, nature has had more than 3 billion years to solve problems, the same kinds of problems we need to solve to advance in space exploration.
The more powerful our technology gets, the deeper we can see into nature. As greater detail is revealed, more tantalizing solutions to engineering problems present themselves. Scientists who look to nature for solutions to engineering and design problems are reaping the rewards, and are making headway in several areas related to space exploration.
NASA has been grabbing headlines recently with their potentially game-changing emDrive propulsion system. The emDrive has generated a lot of discussion, and a lot of controversy too. But NASA has a lot more going on than futuristic space travel designs, and one recent test flight showed that the minds at NASA are still working on innovative designs for flight systems that operate in Earth’s atmosphere.
The Greased Lightning 10, or GL10, is a remotely piloted, ten engine aircraft that can take off and land vertically, and then rotate its wings for forward flight. This type of system has been developed before in full size, piloted aircraft like the V22 Osprey, but it’s never been done before in a small, remotely-piloted aircraft. Continue reading “NASAs Ten-Engine Electric Plane”
We live in a wild and crazy universe. Gigantic stars explode and create the stuff of life, virtual particles pop in and out of existence so fast they can barely be measured, and light exists as particles and waves at the same time. And it all started with three simple words: The Big Bang. It’s taken hundreds of years of science to begin to sort some of this out, so for one author to write one book that tells the whole story is an enormous task.
Enter Ben Gilliland, science columnist, gifted illustrator, and winner of the 2013 Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Space Achievement in Media. Gilliland tackles the task in his new book “How to Build a Universe: from The Big Bang to the End of the Universe.” He uses engaging storytelling, eye-catching graphics, and a relaxed and friendly style of writing that makes reading his book an enjoyable and informative experience.
“How To Build A Universe” reads like a conversation with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend. Gilliland leads us through the twists and turns of the story of the universe and uses his skill as an illustrator to great narrative effect. From The Big Bang, to the discovery of the atom. From the point in time when other galaxies will become invisible to observers on Earth, to the eventual death of the universe, it’s all explained with wit and detail.
If you’ve ever picked up a book about space science, opened the first page and then asked yourself why you didn’t take cosmology and astrophysics in university, this book is for you. There’s none of that with Gilliland’s book. This book grabs the reader right away, and is engaging from start to finish.
You would have to take several university level courses in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology to cover as much ground as “How To Build A Universe” does in 224 pages. And your professors probably wouldn’t be near as engaging as the author, Ben Gilliland. (You’d go to more parties if you went to university, but that’s another subject.)
Don’t get the wrong idea. This book is not dumbed down. It finds its audience nicely. It touches on all the important topics, and digs into the detail with clarity and humour. The writing is clear and concise at the same time that it’s warm and informal. Beyond the writing, it’s the wealth of thoughtful illustrations that help pull it all together.
I’m a technical writer, and I know how hard it can be to explain complicated subjects to people. Ben Gilliland makes it seem effortless. His explanations of quantum physics are particularly effective, and they’re the clearest explanation of that challenging material that I’ve ever come across. I could say the same thing about how he handles Dark Matter and Dark Energy, two other difficult to explain concepts.
Gilliland is a gifted writer and illustrator, and I highly recommend “How To Build a Universe” to Universe Today readers.