NASA and DARPA Will be Testing a Nuclear Rocket in Space

Artist concept of Demonstration for Rocket to Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) spacecraft, Credits: DARPA

The coming decades of space exploration will see astronauts return to the Moon, the first crewed missions to Mars, and robotic missions to the outer Solar System (among other things). These missions will leverage innovative technologies that allow faster transits, long-duration stays, and sustainable living far from Earth. To this end, NASA and other space agencies are investigating nuclear applications, especially where energy and propulsion are concerned. Many of these proposals have been on the books since the early space age and have been thoroughly validated.

On Tuesday, January 24th, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced they were launching an interagency agreement to develop a nuclear-thermal propulsion (NTP) concept. The proposed nuclear rocket is known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), which would enable fast-transit missions to Mars (weeks instead of months). This three-phase program will culminate with a demonstration of the DRACO in orbit, which is expected to occur by early 2027.

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Study Shows How Cells Could Help Artemis Astronauts Exercise

NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA

In 2033, NASA and China plan to send the first crewed missions to Mars. These missions will launch every two years when Earth and Mars are at the closest points in their orbits (Mars Opposition). It will take these missions six to nine months to reach the Red Planet using conventional technology. This means that astronauts could spend up to a year and a half in microgravity, followed by months of surface operations in Martian gravity (roughly 40% of Earth gravity). This could have drastic consequences for astronaut health, including muscle atrophy, bone density loss, and psychological effects.

Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts maintain a strict exercise regimen to mitigate these effects. However, astronauts will not have the same option while in transit to Mars since their vehicles (the Orion spacecraft) have significantly less volume. To address this challenge, Professor Marni Boppart and her colleagues at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are developing a process using regenerative cells. This work could help ensure that astronauts arrive at Mars healthy, hearty, and ready to explore!

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A Hybrid Fission/Fusion Reactor Could be the Best way to get Through the ice on Europa

This reprocessed colour view of Jupiter’s moon Europa was made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the coming years, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will send two robotic missions to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These are none other than NASA’s Europa Clipper and the ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2024, and 2023 (respectively). Once they arrive by the 2030s, they will study Europa’s surface with a series of flybys to determine if its interior ocean could support life. These will be the first astrobiology missions to an icy moon in the outer Solar System, collectively known as “Ocean Worlds.”

One of the many challenges for these missions is how to mine through the thick icy crusts and obtain samples from the interior ocean for analysis. According to a proposal by Dr. Theresa Benyo (a physicist and the principal investigator of the lattice confinement fusion project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center), a possible solution is to use a special reactor that relies on fission and fusion reactions. This proposal was selected for Phase I development by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which includes a $12,500 grant.

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NASA’s Exoplanet Watch Wants Your Help Studying Planets Around Other Stars

NASA's Exoplanet Watch allows citizen scientists to participate in exoplanet research. Credit: NASA

It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.

Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.

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NASA Satellites can Pinpoint the Exact Locations of Excessive CO2 Emissions

Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) had reached four-hundred parts per million (ppm) for the first time since the Pliocene Era (ca. three million years ago). According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), “excess carbon dioxide” in our atmosphere will result in a global average temperature increase of between 1.5 and 2 °C (2.7 and 3.6 °F) by 2030. This will significantly affect ecological systems worldwide, including species extinction, droughts, wildfires, extreme weather, and crop failures.

Aside from curbing emissions, these changes call for mitigation and adaptation strategies and climate monitoring. This is the purpose of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 and 3 missions, twin satellites that make space-based observations of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere to understand the characteristics of climate change better. Using the world’s fifth-largest coal-fired power plant as a test case, a team of researchers used data from OCO 2 and 3 to detect and track changes in CO2 and quantify the emissions produced below.

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“To Boldy Go”: The Nichelle Nichols Foundation Continues Actress’ Legacy of Inspiration

The Nichelle Nichols Foundation carries on the actress' legacy of inspiring young women and people of color to reach for the stars! Credit: Nichelle Nichols Foundation

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain’t stopped yet. There’s more exploration to come.”

Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

This past summer, the world said goodbye to Nichelle Nichols, the famous actress, activist, and musician who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek franchise. This iconic role was one she popularized in the original series (1966 to 1969), six feature films (1979 to 1991), and multiple television specials. But for those familiar with the life and times of Nichols, her legacy as an activist and inspirational figure are what many will truly remember her for. In honor of her tireless work and advocacy, her family, friends, and fans have come together to launch the Nichelle Nichols Foundation (NNF).

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Is Space Power a Good Idea? A New Spacecraft is Going to Find Out!

Artist's impression of the Caltech Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD), Credit: Caltech

Solar power, long considered the leading contender among renewable energy sources, has advanced significantly over the past few decades. The cost of manufacturing and installing solar panels has dropped considerably, and efficiency has increased, making it price competitive with coal, oil, and fossil fuels. However, some barriers, like distribution and storage, still prevent solar power from being adopted more aggressively. In addition, there’s the ever-present issue of intermittency, where arrays cannot collect power in bad weather and during evenings.

These issues have led to the concept of space-based solar power (SBSP), where satellites equipped with solar arrays could gather solar energy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. To test this method, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) recently launched a technology demonstrator to space. It’s called the Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD), which will test several key components of SBSP and evaluate the method’s ability to harvest clean energy and beam it back to Earth.

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Power on the Moon. What Will it Take to Survive the Lunar Night?

Artist rendering of an Artemis astronaut exploring the Moon’s surface during a future mission. Credit: NASA

With the help of international and commercial partners, NASA is sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. In addition to sending crewed missions to the lunar surface, the long-term objective of the Artemis Program is to create the necessary infrastructure for a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.” But unlike the Apollo missions that sent astronauts to the equatorial region of the Moon, the Artemis Program will send astronauts to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, culminating in the creation of a habitat (the Artemis Basecamp).

This region contains many permanently-shadowed craters and experiences a night cycle that lasts fourteen days (a “Lunar Night“). Since solar energy will be limited in these conditions, the Artemis astronauts, spacecraft, rovers, and other surface elements will require additional power sources that can operate in cratered regions and during the long lunar nights. Looking for potential solutions, the Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and the NASA Glenn Research Center recently hosted two space nuclear technologies workshops designed to foster solutions for long-duration missions away from Earth.

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NASA Just Tested a new Engine That Will Launch Artemis V and Beyond

NASA conducts an RS-25 hot fire on the Fred Haise Test Stand at Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi on Dec. 14. Credit: NASA/SSC

On November 16th, NASA launched the first mission of the Artemis Program (Artemis I), which splashed down three and a half weeks later. This uncrewed mission saw the Space Launch System (SLS) send an Orion spacecraft far beyond the orbit of the Moon, establishing a new record for distance traveled by a mission and the amount of time spent beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Powering the core stage of the SLS were four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25s, the same engines used by the Space Shuttle – known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME).

By the end of the decade, NASA plans to mount a total of six Artemis launches that will include crewed missions to the surface, the creation of the Artemis Basecamp, and the deployment of the Lunar Gateway. NASA also plans to upgrade key components in the mission architecture along the way, which include replacing the Space Shuttle Era engines with the newly-designed RS-25E. On December 14th, NASA tested this engine for the first time at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, completing a hot fire test that lasted for just under three and a half minutes (209.5 seconds).

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What Kind of an Impact did DART Have on Dimorphos? The Science Results are Here

Tail
Two tails of dust ejected from the Didymos-Dimorphos asteroid system are seen in new images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, Credit: NASA/ESA

On September 26th, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collided with Dimorphos, the small moonlet that orbits the larger Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Didymos. The purpose was to test a planetary defense technique known as the kinetic impact method, where a spacecraft intentionally collides with a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHAs) to alter its course. Based on a post-collision analysis, NASA determined that DART’s impact altered Dimorphos’ orbital period by 33 minutes and caused tons of rock to be ejected from its surface.

Since the collision, NASA has also been monitoring the cloud of ejecta produced by the impact to see how it has since evolved. The purpose of this is to better understand what the DART spacecraft achieved at the impact site, how much of it was delivered by the spacecraft, and how much was due to the recoil produced by the ejection. On December 15th, during the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Chicago, members of the DART team provided the preliminary analysis of their findings.

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