Solar Sails Could Reach Mars in Just 26 Days

Artist's rendition of the upcoming NASA Solar Cruiser mission due to launch in February 2025, an example of the type of solar sail being developed for this most recent study. (Credit: NASA)

A recent study submitted to Acta Astronautica explores the potential for using aerographite solar sails for traveling to Mars and interstellar space, which could dramatically reduce both the time and fuel required for such missions. This study comes while ongoing research into the use of solar sails is being conducted by a plethora of organizations along with the successful LightSail2 mission by The Planetary Society, and holds the potential to develop faster and more efficient propulsion systems for long-term space missions.

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Mini-Subs Could One Day Ply the Seas Under Europa’s Ice

This is a model of the miniature underwater vehicle being developed at MARUM with partners from industry. It will have a diameter of around ten cm and a length of about 50 cm. The tiny submarines will be placed inside a melt probe then released in the subglacial lakes under Antarctica. Image Credit: MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen.

The most promising places to look for life in the Solar System are in the ocean moons Europa and Enceladus. But all that warm, salty, potentially life-supporting water is under thick sheets of ice: up to 30 km thick on Europa and up to 40 km thick for Enceladus.

The main obstacles to exploring all that water are the thick ice barriers. Assuming a spacecraft can be designed and built to melt its way through all that ice, what then?

Submarines can do the actual exploring, and they needn’t be large.

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The Outer Space Treaty was Signed in 1967. Can it Handle the Future of Space Exploration?

Artist rendition of a future mining outpost on the Moon. (Credit: NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings)

In a recent study submitted to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for the 8th Interstellar Symposium special issue, which is due for publication sometime in 2024, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, who is a senior research investigator and the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, examines how future space exploration governing laws could evolve, either crewed or uncrewed and in the solar system or beyond. He views this study as an expansion of interplanetary governance models he previously discussed in his book, Sovereign Mars, to explore potential limits on space governance at interstellar distances.

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A Robot With Expandable Appendages Could Explore Martian Caves And Cliffs

Plenty of areas in the solar system are interesting for scientific purposes but hard to access by traditional rovers. Some of the most prominent are the caves and cliffs of Mars – where exposed strata could hold clues to whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. So far, none of the missions sent there has been able to explore those difficult-to-reach places. But a mission concept from a team at Stanford hopes to change that. 

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Could Puncturing A Satellite’s Battery Help It Deorbit Faster?

Visual depiction of Kessler syndrome. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office

A few years ago, there was a panic about lithium-ion batteries that exploded and could do things like take down a jetliner. On a recent trip, an airline asked passengers to turn in any devices with batteries that had been banned because of safety concerns. These are indicators of a widely understood downside of lithium-ion batteries, ubiquitous in cell phones, laptops, and other electronic hardware – they can easily catch fire very spectacularly. However, a team at the Aerospace Company is working on an idea to turn this potentially catastrophic event into an asset – by using it to deorbit defunct satellites.

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An Improved Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator Could Dramatically Reduce The Weight Of Interplanetary Missions

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are the power plants of the interplanetary spacecraft. Or at least they have been for going on 50 years now. But they have significant drawbacks, the primary one being that they’re heavy. Even modern-day RTG designs run into the hundreds of kilograms, making them useful for large-scale missions like Perseverance but prohibitively large for any small-scale mission that wants to get to the outer planets. Solar sails aren’t much better, with a combined solar sail and battery system, like the one on Juno, coming in at more than twice the weight of a similarly powered RTG. To solve this problem, a group of engineers from the Aerospace Corporation and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab came up with a way to take the underlying idea of an RTG and shrink it dramatically to the point where it could not potentially be used for much smaller missions.

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Graphene Could Be A Game Changing Material In Space – With A Bit More Research

Graphene has long been put forward as a wonder material. Undeniably, it has astounding properties – stronger than steel, a better electrical conductor than copper, and lighter than almost anything else with similar properties. And while it’s been partially adopted into space-faring technologies, many use cases remain where a pure form of the material could dramatically benefit the space industry. To detail those opportunities, a group of scientists from the Italian Space Agency recently released a paper that looked at graphene’s role in space exploration – and where it might stand to make an even bigger impact shortly.

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A Rocket-Powered Spaceplane Completes a Successful Test Flight

Access to space is getting easier and more accessible as more and more platforms are coming online that can significantly decrease the cost of getting into Earth’s orbit or even beyond. Now, another company has taken a step forward in making inexpensive, reusable access to space a reality. Dawn Aerospace, which operates out of the US, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, has successfully tested a prototype spaceplane.

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Tiny Spacecraft Using Solar Sails Open Up a Solar System of Opportunity

Some parts of the solar system are exceptionally hard to reach. Despite the interesting scientific data we could collect from that location, we’ve never managed to send a probe to one of the poles of the Sun. Nor have we been able to send many spacecraft to exciting places in the Oort cloud of other parts of the outer solar system. Voyager 1, which currently holds the record for being the farthest craft away from Earth, took over 40 years to reach the point where it is now. Even if it did pass by something interesting on its way, its antiquated scientific equipment would be less useful than more modern technology.

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The State of Suborbital Space Science

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a test flight. Suborbital science experiments fly aboard this craft, as well as Blue Origin's New Shepard, and other suborbital flights, providing scientists, students, and others with valuable microgravity access. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Think there’s nothing to learn through suborbital flight and that space science is only done in orbit? Think again. Recently, a group of school students in Canada asked the question: do Epi-Pens work in space? These are epinephrine-loaded injectors used to help people with allergies survive a severe attack. To get an answer, the class at St Brother André Elementary School worked with NASA, the University of Ottawa, and the non-profit Cubes in Space program to launch some Epi-Pens on suborbital flights aboard a rocket and a high-altitude balloon. The result? Post-flight analysis showed that the pens lost their efficacy in space. It was a surprise to NASA as well as to the students.

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