Exploring the Outer Solar System Takes Power, Here’s a Way to Miniaturize Nuclear Batteries for Deep Space

Color-enhanced image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2015. More thorough exploration of the outer Solar System will require efficient power systems for spacecraft. (Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) / Southwest Research Institute (SwRI))

As science and technology advance, we’re asking our space missions to deliver more and more results. NASA’s MSL Curiosity and Perseverance rovers illustrate this fact. Perseverance is an exceptionally exquisite assemblage of technologies. These cutting-edge rovers need a lot of power to fulfill their tasks, and that means bulky and expensive power sources.

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Want to Colonize Space? Unleash the Power of Microbes

Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Microbes play a critical role on Earth. Why not harness their power for space colonization? Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

If space colonization is in our future, we’ll have to use the resources available there. But we won’t be able to bring our established industrial methods and processes from Earth into space. Transporting heavy mining machinery to the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else in space is not feasible. And each of those environments is wildly different from Earth. We’ll need novel approaches to solve all of the problems facing us, and the approaches will have to be sustainable.

Terrestrial microbes are the foundation of Earth’s biosphere, and they could play an outsized role in space colonization.

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If We’re Going to Get Under the Ice on Europa, How Will We Send a Signal Back to the Surface?

Artist’s rendering of the Europa “tunnelbot.” (Credit: Alexander Pawlusik, LERCIP Internship Program NASA Glenn Research Center)
Artist’s rendering of the Europa “tunnelbot.” (Credit: Alexander Pawlusik, LERCIP Internship Program NASA Glenn Research Center)

If we send some type of nuclear-powered tunnelbot to Europa to seek life under its icy shield, how will we know what it finds? How can a probe immersed in water under all that ice communicate with Earth? We only have hints about the nature of that ice, what layers it has and what pockets of water it might hold.

All we know is that it’s tens of kilometres thick and as hard as granite.

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Robots Might Jump Around to Explore the Moon

LEAP (Legged Exploration of the Aristarchus Plateau) is a mission concept study, funded by ESA, to explore challenging lunar terrains using ANYmal, a four-legged robot developed at ETH Zürich and its spin-off ANYbotics. Credit: ETH Zürich/Robotics Systems Labs (RSL)

How great are wheels, really? Wheels need axles. Suspension. Power of some kind. And roads, or at least swaths of relatively flat and stable terrain. Then you need to maintain all of it. Because of their cost many civilizations across human history, who knew all about wheels and axles, didn’t bother using them for transportation. Another way to look at it – much of human technology mimics nature. Of the simple machines, levers, inclined planes, wedges, and even screws are observed in nature. Why not the wheel?

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What is ISRU, and How Will it Help Human Space Exploration?

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Lunar explorers will need communicationa nd navigation aids while on the surface. NASa is developing a lunar mapping-based program to help them. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Lunar explorers will need communicationa nd navigation aids while on the surface. NASA is developing a lunar mapping-based program to help them. Credit: NASA

As Artemis 1 prepares for its maiden launch with the goal of putting astronauts back on the Moon’s surface within the next few years, the next question is how will astronauts live and survive its surface? Will we constantly ferry all the necessary supplies such as water and food from Earth, or could astronauts learn to survive on their own? These are questions that a discipline known as ISRU hopes to answer both now and in the years to come. But what is ISRU, and how will it help advance human space exploration as we begin to slowly venture farther away from the only home we’ve ever known?

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We’ll be Building Self-Replicating Probes to Explore the Milky Way Sooner Than you Think. Why Haven’t ETIs?

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The future can arrive in sudden bursts. What seems a long way off can suddenly jump into view, especially when technology is involved. That might be true of self-replicating machines. Will we combine 3D printing with in-situ resource utilization to build self-replicating space probes?

One aerospace engineer with expertise in space robotics thinks it could happen sooner rather than later. And that has implications for SETI.

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Two Spacecraft Could Work Together to Capture an Asteroid and Bring it Close to Earth for Mining

Mining asteroids might be necessary for humanity to expand into the Solar System. But what effect would asteroid mining have on the world's economy? Credit: ESA.

Humanity seems destined to expand into the Solar System. What exactly that looks like, and how difficult and tumultuous the endeavour might be, is wide open to speculation. But there are some undeniable facts attached to the prospect.

We need materials to build infrastructure, and getting it all into space from Earth is not realistic. (Be quiet, space elevator people.)

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A new Kind of Solar Sail Could let us Explore Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System

Solar sailing technology has been a dream of many for decades. The simple elegance of sailing on the light waves of the sun does have a dreamy aspect to it that has captured the imagination of engineers as well as writers. However, the practicalities of the amount of energy received compared to that needed to move useful payloads have brought those dreams back to reality. Now, a team led by Amber Dubill of John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and supported by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is developing new solar sail architecture that might have already found its killer app – heliophysics.

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Spinlaunch Hurled a Test Rocket Into the air. See What it Looked Like From the Payload’s Point of View

Can watching a video give you motion sickness?  If so, a commercial launch company called SpinLaunch just released a video that is sure to. The video is from the first camera ever attached to one of the company’s test payloads, and boy is it spectacular, though it might indeed be nausea-inducing in some people.

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Traveling the Solar System with Pulsar Navigation

A pulsar with its magnetic field lines illustrated. The beams emitting from the poles are what washes over our detectors as the dead star spins.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found a way for travelers through the Solar System to work out exactly where they are, without needing help from ground-based observers on Earth. They have refined the pulsar navigation technique, which uses X-ray signals from distant pulsars, in a way similar to how GPS uses signals from a constellation of specialized satellites, to calculate an exact position .

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