In the near future, NASA and other space agencies will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over fifty years. But unlike the Apollo Era, these missions will consist of astronauts spending extended periods on the Moon and traveling to and from Mars (with a few months of surface operations in between). Beyond that, there’s also the planned commercialization of LEO and cis-Lunar space, meaning millions of people could live aboard space habitats and surface settlements well beyond Earth.
This presents many challenges, which include the possibility that the sick and injured won’t have licensed medical practitioners to perform potentially life-saving surgery. To address this, Professor Shane Farritor and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) have developed the Miniaturized In-vivo Robotic Assistant (MIRA). In 2024, this portable miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery (RAS) platform will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) for a test mission to evaluate its ability to perform medical procedures in space.
The Space Elevator is one of those ideas that seems to have an endless supply of lives. Originally proposed about a century ago, this concept calls for a tether of supermaterial that connects a station in orbit to Earth’s surface. Our planet’s rotation would keep this tether taut, and a system of “climbers” would transport people and payloads to and from space. The engineering challenges and costs associated with such a structure have always been enormous. But every generation or so, new research comes along that causes engineers and space agencies to reevaluate the concept.
The single-greatest challenge has always been the tether since no known material has ever been strong enough to handle the stresses involved. But as it turns out, this issue may finally be resolved! According to scientists with the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC), a cost-effective manufacturing process could produce graphene ribbons that are strong enough to fashion a tether! Their latest findings are detailed in a paper they will present at the upcoming 2022 International Astronomical Congress in Paris.
Ever since astronomers found that Earth and the Solar System are not unique in the cosmos, humanity has dreamed of the day when we might explore nearby stars and settle extrasolar planets. Unfortunately, the laws of physics impose strict limitations on how fast things can travel in our Universe, otherwise known as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Per this theory, the speed of light is constant and absolute, and objects approaching it will experience an increase in their inertial mass (thereby requiring more mass to accelerate further).
While no object can ever reach or exceed the speed of light, there may be a loophole that allows for Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel. It’s known as the Alcubierre Warp Metric, which describes a warp field that contracts spacetime in front of a spacecraft and expands it behind. This would allow the spacecraft to effectively travel faster than the speed of light while not violating Relativity or causality. For more than a decade, Dr. Harold “Sonny” White has been investigating this theory in the hopes of bringing it closer to reality.
Previously, Dr. White pursued the development of an Alcubierre Warp Drive with his colleagues at the Advanced Propulsion Physics Research Laboratory (NASA Eagleworks) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In 2020, he began working with engineers and scientists at the Limitless Space Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, outreach, research grants, and the development of advanced propulsion methods – which they hope will culminate in the creation of the first warp drive!
In the coming years, Artemis Program, NASA will be sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era and establish a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” To ensure that astronauts have the necessary power to maintain their habitats and support operations on the surface, NASA has partnered with Sandia to develop microgrids for the Moon! This technology could also support future endeavors, like mining, fuel processing, and other activities on the Moon.
In recent years, the practice of “telemedicine” has grown considerably. Similar to “telepresence” and “telecommuting,” this technology relies on high-speed internet and live-video streaming to allow a person in one part of the world to interact with people in another without being physically present. The technology has come in handy during the two-year COVID-19 pandemic, where doctors were in high demand, but physical travel was restricted.
This process has also allowed for the emergence of “holoportation,” which relies on holographic technology and 3-D modeling for the same purpose. In October 2021, the first “holoportation handshake” was conducted between Earth and space and demonstrated the technology’s potential for future missions. On this occasion, NASA flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmid, AEXA Aerospace CEO Fernando De La Pena Llaca, and their teams had a two-way conversation with ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
When astronauts begin exploring Mars, they will face numerous challenges. Aside from the time and energy it takes to get there and all the health risks that come with long-duration missions in space, there are also the hazards of the Martian environment itself. These include Mars’ incredibly thin and toxic and toxic atmosphere, the high levels of radiation the planet is exposed to, and the fact that the surface is extremely cold and drier than the driest deserts on Earth.
As a result, missions to Mars will need to leverage local resources to provide all the basic necessities, a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Looking to address the need for propellant, a team from the Spanish innovation company Tekniker is developing a system that uses solar power to convert astronaut wastewater into fuel. This technology could be a game-changer for missions to deep space in the coming years, including the Moon, Mars, and beyond!
As Russia wages its terrible war against its neighbour Ukraine, the deteriorating situation inside Russia is leading many Russians to flee the collapsing economy. According to Russian journalist Kamil Galeev, Roscosmos Director Dmitry Rogozin is prohibiting Roscosmos employees from leaving the increasingly isolated nation.
Ion engines are the best technology for sending spacecraft on long missions. They’re not suitable for launching spacecraft against powerful gravity, but they require minimal propellant compared to rockets, and they drive spacecraft to higher velocities over extended time periods. Ion thrusters are also quiet, and their silence has some scientists wondering if they could use them on Earth in applications where noise is undesirable.
Between the exponential growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) and missions planned for the Moon in this decade, it’s generally agreed that we are living in the “Space Age 2.0.” Even more ambitious are the proposals to send crewed missions to Mars in the next decade, which would see astronauts traveling beyond the Earth-Moon system for the first time. The challenge this represents has inspired many innovative new ideas for spacecraft, life-support systems, and propulsion.
In particular, missions planners and engineers are investigating Directed Energy (DE) propulsion, where laser arrays are used to accelerate light sails to relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). In a recent study, a team from UCLA explained how a fleet of tiny probes with light sails could be used to explore the Solar System. These probes would rely on a low-power laser array, thereby being more cost-effective than similar concepts but would be much faster than conventional rockets.
For years, NASA has been gearing up for its long-awaited return to the Moon with the Artemis Program. Beginning in 2025, this program will send the first astronauts (“the first woman and first person of color”) to the Moon since the end of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA plans to establish the necessary infrastructure to allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration,” such as the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp.
Beyond these facilities, several elements are essential to ensuring a long-term human presence on the Moon. These include shelter from the elements, food, air, water, and of course, power. To address this last element, NASA has teamed up with HeroX – the leading crowdsourcing platform – to launch the NASA Watts on the Moon Challenge. This competition is entering Phase II and will award an additional $4.5 million for innovative concepts that supply power to future lunar missions.