The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it has only been in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to Near-Earth Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt to harvest minerals and other resources.
At the moment, one of the main challenges is how these craft would be able to get around and refuel once they are in space. To address this, the New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teemed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a steam-powered robotic spacecraft. The company recently released a demonstration video that shows their prototype World is Not Enough (WINE) “steam hopper” in action.
In an announcement sure to make you quiver with delight, Elon Musk says that SpaceX could begin short-hop test flights of its Starship prototype as early as next Spring. The Starship, which looks like something from a 1950’s sci-fi novel cover (awesome!) is intended to carry people to the Moon and Mars. When the spacecraft design was originally announced in 2016, it was called the Mars Colonial Transporter, and it sent shockwaves through the community.
The search for life has led astronomers to the icy moons in our Solar System. Among those moons, Europa has attracted a lot of attention. Europa is Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon—and the sixth-largest in the Solar System—at 3,100 kilometres (1,900 mi) in diameter. Scientists think that its oceans could contain two or three times as much water as Earth’s oceans. The only problem is, that water is hidden under a sheet of planet-wide ice that could be between 2km and 30km (1.2 miles and 18.6 miles) thick.
A team of scientists is working hard on the problem. Andrew Dombard, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is part of a team that presented a possible solution. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, D.C., they presented their idea: a nuclear-powered tunneling robot that could tunnel its way through the ice and into the ocean.
The dream of traveling to another star system, and maybe even finding populated worlds there, is one that has preoccupied humanity for many generations. But it was not until the era of space exploration that scientists have been able to investigate various methods for making an interstellar journey. While many theoretical designs have been proposed over the years, a lot of attention lately has been focused on laser-propelled interstellar probes.
The first conceptual design study, known as Project Dragonfly was hosted by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) in 2013. The concept called for the use of lasers to accelerate a light sail and spacecraft to 5% the speed of light, thus reaching Alpha Centauri in about a century. In a recent paper, one of the teams that took part in the design competition assessed the feasibility of their proposal for a lightsail and magnetic sail.
The idea of exploring and colonizing Mars has never been more alive than it is today. Within the next two decades, there are multiple plans to send crewed missions to the Red Planet, and even some highly ambitious plans to begin building a permanent settlement there. Despite the enthusiasm, there are many significant challenges that need to be addressed before any such endeavors can be attempted.
These challenges – which include the effects of low-gravity on the human body, radiation, and the psychological toll of being away from Earth – become all the more pronounced when dealing with permanent bases. To address this, civil engineer Marco Peroni offers a proposal for a modular Martian base (and a spacecraft to deliver it) that would allow for the colonization of Mars while protecting its inhabitants with artificial radiation shielding.
Let’s be honest, launching things into space with rockets is a pretty inefficient way to do things. Not only are rockets expensive to build, they also need a ton of fuel in order to achieve escape velocity. And while the costs of individual launches are being reduced thanks to concepts like reusable rockets and space planes, a more permanent solution could be to build a Space Elevator.
And while such a project of mega-engineering is simply not feasible right now, there are many scientists and companies around the world that are dedicated to making a space elevator a reality within our lifetimes. For example, a team of Japanese engineers from Shizuoka University‘s Faculty of Engineering recently created a scale model of a space elevator that they will be launching into space tomorrow (on September 11th).
One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.
Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.
To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.
When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.
The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:
“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”
Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.
So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.
The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.
And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:
“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”
When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.
Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:
When it comes to space exploration, the motto “keep it simple” isn’t always followed! For the most part, satellites, spacecraft, telescopes, and the many other technologies that allow humans to study and explore the Universe are the result of highly-technical and complex feats of engineering. But sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that offer the most innovative solutions.
This is especially true when it comes to the today’s space agencies, who are concerned with cutting costs and increasing accessibility to space. A good example is the Fenix propulsion system, a proposal created by Italian tech company D-Orbit. As part of the last year’s Space Exploration Masters, this pen-sized booster will allow CubeSats to maneuver and accomplish more in space.
The Space Exploration Masters, which the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated in 2017, seeks to encourage space-based innovation and provide opportunities for commercial development. As such, this annual competition has become central to the implementation of the ESA Space Exploration strategy. For their application last year, D-Orbit was jointly awarded the the ESA and Space Application Services prize.
The thruster prototype itself measures only 10 cm long and 2 cm wide (~4 by 0.8 inches) and contain solid propellant that is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters are designed to be placed at each corner of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSat, or can be doubled up for added thrust. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space or add significantly to a CubeSat’s weight.
Currently, CubeSats are deployed directly into space, deorbit at the end of their missions, and have no means to change their orbits. But with this simple, chemical-propellant thruster, CubeSats could function for longer periods and would be able to take on more complicated missions. For instance, if they can maneuver in orbit, they will be able to study the Moon and asteroids from different angles.
In addition, boosters will allow CubeSats to deorbit themselves once they are finished their missions, thus reducing the threat of space debris. According to the latest report from the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), an estimated 19,894 bits of space junk were circling our planet by the end of 2017, with a combined mass of at least 8135 metric tons (8967 US tons). This problem is only expected to get worse.
In fact, it is estimated that the small satellite market will grow by $5.3 billion in the next decade (according to Space Works and Eurostat) and many private companies are looking to provide regular launch services to accommodate that growth. As such, a propulsion system that not only presents opportunities to do more with CubeSats, but in a way that will not add to problem of space debris, will be highly sought-after.
In addition to the ESA and Space Application Services prize, D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility, which is located in the Columbus module aboard the International Space Station. This facility is the first European commercial research center to operate aboard the ISS, and the D-Orbit team will use to test the booster’s safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment.
This experiment, which will not involve firing the actual propulsion system, will help ensure that the booster can operate safe and effectively in space. Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, while the team relies on the ICE Cubes facility’s dedicated control center to provide them with remote viewing opportunities from the ground.
The Fenix boosters are set to launch for the ISS by the end of next year and, if successful, D-Orbit will likely secure permission to test their propulsion system in space. And if all goes well, future generations of CubeSats – which have already made Low Earth Orbit (LEO) accessible to private companies and research institutes – will be capable of performing far more tasks in orbit.
For this year’s Space Exploration Masters, the ESA is partnering with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to address health and food. For the main challenge, participants will be tasked with coming up with applications that promote nutritious food and food security, both on- and 0ff-planet. Among other challenges, this year’s SEM will also be looking for ideas that make missions more sustainable and new ways to use future spacecraft.
For more information on this year’s Space Exploration Masters, check out the ESA website page.
Life aboard the International Space Station is characterized by careful work and efficiency measures. Not only do astronauts rely on an average of 12 metric tons of supplies a year – which is shipped to the station from Earth – they also produce a few metric tons of garbage. This garbage must be carefully stored so that it doesn’t accumulate, and is then sent back to the surface on commercial supply vehicles.
This system works well for a station in orbit. But what about spacecraft that are conducted long-duration missions? These ships will not have the luxury of meeting with a regular cadence of commercial ships that will drop off supplies and haul away their garbage. To address this, NASA is investigating possible solutions for how to handle space trash for deep space missions.
For this purpose, NASA is turning to its partners in the commercial sector to develop concepts for Trash Compaction and Processing Systems (TCPS). In a solicitation issued through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA recently issued a Board Agency Announcement that called for the creation of prototypes and eventually flight demonstrations that would fly to the ISS.
“NASA’s ultimate goal is to develop capabilities to enable missions that are not reliant on resupply from Earth thus making them more sustainable and affordable. NASA is implementing this by employing a capability-driven approach to its human spaceflight strategy. The approach is based on developing a suite of evolving capabilities that provide specific functions to solve exploration challenges. These investments in initial capabilities can continuously be leveraged and reused, enabling more complex operations over time and exploration of more distant solar system destinations.”
When it comes right down to it, storing trash inside a spacecraft is serious challenge. Not only does it consume precious volume, it can also create physical and biological hazards for the crew. Storing garbage also means that leftover resources can not be repurposed or recycled. All told, the BAA solicitation is looking for solutions that will compact trash, remove biological and physical hazards, and recover resources for future use.
To this end, they are looking for ideas and technologies for a TCPS that could operate on future generations of spaceships. As part of the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Habitat’s Logistics Reduction (LR), the TCPS is part of NASA’s larger goal of identifying and developing technologies that reduce logistical mass, volume, and the amount of time the crew dedicates to logistics management.
The objectives of the TCPS , as is stated in the Appendix, are fourfold:
“(1) trash compaction to a suitable form for efficient long-endurance storage; (2) safe processing of trash to eliminate and/or reduce the risk of biological activity; (3) stabilize the trash physically, geometrically, and biologically; and (4) manage gaseous, aqueous, and particulate effluents. The TCPS will be the first step toward development and testing of a fully-integrated unit for further Exploration Missions and future space vehicles.”
The development will occur in two phases. In Phase A, selected companies will create a concept TCPS system, conduct design reviews with NASA, and validate them through prototype ground demonstrations. In Phase B, a system will be prepared for transport to the ISS so that a demonstration cant take place aboard the station as early as 2022.
The various companies that submit proposals will not be working in the dark, as NASA has been developing waste management systems since the 1980s. These include recent developments like the Heat Melt Compactor (HMC) experiment, a device that will recover residual water from astronaut’s garbage and compact trash to provide volume reduction (or perhaps an ionizing radiation shield).
Other examples include the “trash to gas” technologies, which are currently being pursued under the Logistics Reduction and Repurposing project (LRR). Using the HMC, this process involves creating methane gas from trash to make rocket propellant. Together, these technologies would not only allow astronauts on long-duration spaceflights to conserve room, but also extract useful resources from their garbage.
NASA plans to host an industry day on July 24th in order to let potential industry partners know exactly what they are looking for, describe available NASA facilities, and answer questions from potential respondents. Official proposals from aspiring partners are due no later than August 22nd, 2018, and whichever proposals make the cut will be tested on the ISS in the coming decade!
If something called “Project METERON” sounds to you like a sinister project involving astronauts, robots, the International Space Station, and artificial intelligence, I don’t blame you. Because that’s what it is (except for the sinister part.) In fact, the Meteron Project (Multi-Purpose End-to-End Robotic Operation Network) is not sinister at all, but a friendly collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR.)
The idea behind the project is to place an artificially intelligent robot here on Earth under the direct control of an astronaut 400 km above the Earth, and to get the two to work together.
“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance.” – Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager.
On March 2nd, engineers at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics set up the robot called Justin in a simulated Martian environment. Justin was given a simulated task to carry out, with as few instructions as necessary. The maintenance of solar panels was the chosen task, since they’re common on landers and rovers, and since Mars can get kind of dusty.
The first test of the METERON Project was done in August. But this latest test was more demanding for both the robot and the astronaut issuing the commands. The pair had worked together before, but since then, Justin was programmed with more abstract commands that the operator could choose from.
American astronaut Scott Tingle issued commands to Justin from a tablet aboard the ISS, and the same tablet also displayed what Justin was seeing. The human-robot team had practiced together before, but this test was designed to push the pair into more challenging tasks. Tingle had no advance knowledge of the tasks in the test, and he also had no advance knowledge of Justin’s new capabilities. On-board the ISS, Tingle quickly realized that the panels in the simulation down here were dusty. They were also not pointed in the optimal direction.
This was a new situation for Tingle and for Justin, and Tingle had to choose from a range of commands on the tablet. The team on the ground monitored his choices. The level of complexity meant that Justin couldn’t just perform the task and report it completed, it meant that Tingle and the robot also had to estimate how clean the panels were after being cleaned.
“Our team closely observed how the astronaut accomplished these tasks, without being aware of these problems in advance and without any knowledge of the robot’s new capabilities,” says DLR engineer Daniel Leidner.
The next test will take place in Summer 2018 and will push the system even further. Justin will have an even more complex task before him, in this case selecting a component on behalf of the astronaut and installing it on the solar panels. The German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst will be the operator.
If the whole point of this is not immediately clear to you, think Mars exploration. We have rovers and landers working on the surface of Mars to study the planet in increasing detail. And one day, humans will visit the planet. But right now, we’re restricted to surface craft being controlled from Earth.
What METERON and other endeavours like it are doing, is developing robots that can do our work for us. But they’ll be smart robots that don’t need to be told every little thing. They are just given a task and they go about doing it. And the humans issuing the commands could be in orbit around Mars, rather than being exposed to all the risks on the surface.
“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance,” explained Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager. “And we also reduce the workload of the astronaut, who can transfer tasks to the robot.” To do this, however, astronauts and robots must cooperate seamlessly and also complement one another.
That’s why these tests are important. Getting the astronaut and the robot to perform well together is critical.
“This is a significant step closer to a manned planetary mission with robotic support,” says Alin Albu-Schäffer, head of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. It’s expensive and risky to maintain a human presence on the surface of Mars. Why risk human life to perform tasks like cleaning solar panels?
“The astronaut would therefore not be exposed to the risk of landing, and we could use more robotic assistants to build and maintain infrastructure, for example, with limited human resources.” In this scenario, the robot would no longer simply be the extended arm of the astronaut: “It would be more like a partner on the ground.”