Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)
Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).
In the coming generations, humanity’s presence in space is expected to grow considerably. With everything from space tourism, the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), asteroid mining, and maybe even settlements on the Moon and Mars in mind, there appears to be no limit to what we hope to accomplish. Another interesting thing about the modern space age is the way it is becoming more open and accessible, with more people and nations able to take part.
Unlike the Space Race, where two nations dominated the playing field and astronauts corps were almost exclusively made up of white men, space exploration today is more representative. However, there are still many challenges and barriers for women and people of color in space exploration and the related STEAM fields, not all of which are visible. Addressing these requires that we become better at listening to those who deal with them.
To this end, the Space Court Foundation (SCF) is launching a new series titled “Women of Color in Space.” As part of their mission to foster a conversation about space law and the future of space exploration today, this series interviews women of color who have made it their mission to advance space exploration and fulfill the promise of making space “the province of all of humanity.”
I just finished the most recent season of The Expanse – my current favourite Sci-Fi series. Unlike most of my other go-to Sci-Fi, The Expanse’s narrative is (thus far) mainly contained to our own Solar System. In Star Trek, ships fly about the galaxy at Faster-Than-Light speeds giving mention to the many light years (or parsecs *cough* Star Wars) travelled to say nothing of sublight journeys within solar systems themselves. The distances between stars is huge. But, for current-day Earthling technology, our Solar System itself is still overwhelmingly enormous. It takes years to get anywhere.
In The Expanse, ships use a fictional sublight propulsion called The Epstein Drive to travel quickly through the Solar System at significant fractions of light speed. We’re not nearly there yet, but we are getting closer with the announcement of a new theoretical sublight propulsion. It won’t be an Epstein drive, but it may come to be known as the Ebrahimi Drive – an engine inspired by fusion reactors and the incredible power of solar Coronal Mass Ejections.
On July 19th, 2020, the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) – aka. Al Amal (“Hope” in Arabic) – launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan on its way to Mars. This mission, the first interplanetary effort to be mounted by an Arab nation, is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in collaboration with a number of research institutions internationally.
In 1972, the Space Race officially ended as NASA sent one last crew of astronauts to the surface of the Moon (Apollo 17). This was the brass ring that both the US and the Soviets were reaching for, the “Moonshot” that would determine who had supremacy in space. In the current age of renewed space exploration, the next great leap will clearly involve sending astronauts to Mars.
If human beings intend to become an interplanetary species (or interstellar, for that matter), then we are going to need new propulsion methods that combine a significant level of thrust with fuel-efficiency. One option that NASA has been exploring for decades is spacecraft that rely on nuclear power, which can take the form of nuclear-electric or nuclear-thermal propulsion (NEP/NTP).
In the current era of space exploration, other space agencies are looking into this technology as well. For instance, the UK Space Agency recently signed a contract with the British automotive engineering firm Rolls-Royce. As per their duties, Rolls-Royce will investigate applications for nuclear power and propulsion. Given the company’s record of mechanical, electrical, and nuclear power solutions
In 2012, the Gateway Foundation was founded with the purpose of building the world’s first rotating space station in orbit – known as The Gateway. This is no easy task and must be preceded by establishing the necessary infrastructure in orbit and the creation of a series of smaller structures to test the concept. This includes the Voyager Class station, a rotating structure designed to produce varying levels of artificial gravity.
In recent months, the Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) – founed in 2018 by the Gateway team – began working on a crucial component, known as the DSTAR. These and other updates about their Voyager Class station were the subjects of a recent video featuring Foundation and OAC CEO John Blincow. According to Blincow, he and his colleagues will be performing a demonstration and making a big announcement in the coming weeks!
Some of the most tantalizing targets in space exploration are frozen ice worlds. Take Jupiter’s moon Europa for instance. Its warm salty subsurface ocean is buried under a moon-wide sheet of ice. What’s the best way to explore it?
If humans plan to go to live and work beyond Earth someday, they will need technologies that allow for sustainable living in alien environments. This is especially true of Mars, which is extremely cold, dry, and subject to more radiation than we are used to. On top of that, it also takes six to nine months to send spacecraft there, and that’s every two years when Earth and Mars are closest to each other in their orbits.
As such, settling on the Red Planet will require some serious creativity!
This is the purpose of Mars City Design (the Mars City®), an innovation and design platform founded by architect and filmmaker Vera Mulyani. Every year since its inception, this organization has hosted the Mars City Design Challenges, where students from around the world come together with industry experts to produce architectural designs for living on Mars (what Mulyani calls “Marchitecture”).
A little over a decade from now, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars for the first time. This mission will build on decades of robotic exploration, collect samples from the surface, and return them to Earth for analysis. Given the immense distance involved, any operations on the Martian surface will need to be as self-sufficient as possible, which means sourcing whatever they can locally.
This includes using the local water to create oxygen gas, drinking water, and rocket fuel, which represents a challenge considering that any liquid water is likely to be briny. Luckily, a team of researchers from the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL) has created a new type of electrolysis system that can convert briny water into usable products while also being compact and lightweight.