Improving a 1960s Plan to Explore the Giant Planets

John Bodylski holds a balsa wood model of his proposed aircraft that could be an atmospheric probe. Directly in front of him is a fully assembled version of the aircraft and a large section of a second prototype at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. Credit: NASA/Steve Freeman

In the 1960s, NASA engineers developed a series of small lifting-body aircraft that could be dropped into the atmosphere of a giant planet, measuring the environment as they glided down. Although it would be a one-way trip to destruction, the form factor would allow a probe to glide around in different atmospheric layers, gathering data and transmitting it back to a parent satellite. An updated version of the 1960s design is being tested at NASA now, and a drop-test flight from a helicopter is scheduled for this month.

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When an Object Like ‘Oumuamua Comes Around Again, We Could be Ready With an Interstellar Object Explorer (IOE)

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

On October 19th, 2017, astronomers with the Pann-STARRS survey observed an Interstellar Object (ISO) passing through our system – 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua. This was the first time an ISO was detected, confirming that such objects pass through the Solar System regularly, as astronomers predicted decades prior. Just two years later, a second object was detected, the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov. Given ‘Oumuamua’s unusual nature (still a source of controversy) and the information ISOs could reveal about distant star systems, astronomers are keen to get a closer look at future visitors.

For instance, multiple proposals have been made for interceptor spacecraft that could catch up with future ISOs, study them, and even conduct a sample return (like the ESA’s Comet Interceptor). In a new paper by a team from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Alan Stern and his colleagues studied possible concepts and recommended a purpose-built robotic ISO flyby mission called the Interstellar Object Explorer (IOE). They also demonstrate how this mission could be performed on a modest budget with current spaceflight technology.

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Watch the Varda Capsule’s Entire Fiery Atmospheric Re-Entry

Screenshot from the Varda W-1 capsule's reentry to Earth.

Here’s a front row seat on what it would be like to return to Earth inside a space capsule. Varda Space Industries’ small W-1 spacecraft successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range on February 21, 2024.  A camera installed inside the cozy 90 cm- (3 ft)-wide capsule captured the entire stunning reentry sequence, from separation from the satellite bus in low Earth orbit (LEO) to the fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, to parachute deploy, to the bouncy landing.

At the end of this 5-minute video, you’ll see a pair legs with mud-caked shoes approach to gather the parachute and retrieve the capsule. Not only is there video, but sound as well. And the sounds of reentry and landing are what grabs you!  

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Ground-Based Lasers Could Accelerate Spacecraft to Other Stars

An artist's illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. The leakage from such beams as they sweep across the sky would appear as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), similar to the new population of sources that was discovered recently at cosmological distances. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

The future of space exploration includes some rather ambitious plans to send missions farther from Earth than ever before. Beyond the current proposals for building infrastructure in cis-lunar space and sending regular crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, there are also plans to send robotic missions to the outer Solar System, to the focal length of our Sun’s gravitational lens, and even to the nearest stars to explore exoplanets. Accomplishing these goals requires next-generation propulsion that can enable high thrust and consistent acceleration.

Focused arrays of lasers – or directed energy (DE) – and lightsails are a means that is being investigated extensively – such as Breakthrough Starshot and Swarming Proxima Centauri. Beyond these proposals, a team from McGill University in Montreal has proposed a new type of directed energy propulsion system for exploring the Solar System. In a recent paper, the team shared the early results of their Laser-Thermal Propulsion (LTP) thruster facility, which suggests that the technology has the potential to provide both high thrust and specific impulse for interstellar missions.

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Engineers Design Habitats for the Moon Inspired by Terminite Mounds

Porous cathedral termite mounds in Kakadu National Park, Australia. Credit: Mother Nature Network

Through the Artemis Program, NASA intends to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, they intend to stay and establish a lunar base and other infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” To accomplish this, NASA is enlisting the help of fellow space agencies, commercial partners, and academic institutions to create the necessary mission elements – these range from the launch systems, spacecraft, and human landing systems to the delivery of payloads.

With NASA funding, a team of engineers from the University of Arizona College of Engineering (UA-CE) is developing autonomous robot networks to build sandbag shelters for NASA astronauts on the Moon. The designs are inspired by cathedral termite mounds, which are native to Africa and northern Australia’s desert regions. Their work was the subject of a paper presented at the American Astronautical Society Guidance, Navigation, and Control (AAS GNC) Conference, which took place from February 1st to 7th in Littleton and Breckinridge, Colorado.

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Reflectors in Space Could Make Solar Power More Effective

Reflectors in low-earth orbit

Solar power is a booming industry right now as we all strive to run our lives with minimum carbon footprint. Solar is a relatively easy way to get clean electricity but of course we are limited to the hours then Sun is above the horizon. Solar panels in space have been muted before but the costs and technology to transmit power to Earth is prohibitive. An alternative approach has been explored by a team of engineers who have been looking at the possibility of deploying giant reflectors into space.

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This Alien Landscape is Actually a Microscopic View of an Atomic Clock

This looks like the landscape feature called penitentes that form in the icy cold on Pluto. But it's actually a glass surface that's part of an atomic clock. Image Credit: Safran/ESA

Navigation satellites couldn’t accomplish anything without extremely accurate clocks. But a regular clock won’t do. Only atomic clocks are accurate enough, and that’s because they tell time with electrons.

Those atomic clocks wear out over time, and that’s what the image shows.

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NASA Selects Bold Proposal to “Swarm” Proxima Centauri with Tiny Probes

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

Humans have dreamed about traveling to other star systems and setting foot on alien worlds for generations. To put it mildly, interstellar exploration is a very daunting task. As we explored in a previous post, it would take between 1000 and 81,000 years for a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri (of which Proxima Centauri is considered a companion) using conventional propulsion (or those that are feasible using current technology). On top of that, there are numerous risks when traveling through the interstellar medium (ISM), not all of which are well-understood.

Under the circumstances, gram-scale spacecraft that rely on directed-energy propulsion (aka. lasers) appear to be the only viable option for reaching neighboring stars in this century. Proposed concepts include the Swarming Proxima Centauri, a collaborative effort between Space Initiatives Inc. and the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) led by Space Initiative’s chief scientist Marshall Eubanks. The concept was recently selected for Phase I development as part of this year’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

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ESA Gives Us a Glimpse of its Future Space Exploration Plans with a Cool New Video

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) has made incredible contributions to space exploration and space-based science. Last year, the agency launched the Euclid space telescope, which will survey the Universe back to 3 billion years after the Big Bang to measure cosmic expansion and the influence of Dark Energy. After more than a decade of development, the Ariane 6 launch vehicle conducted its first full-scale dress rehearsal, which included an engine fire test. In a recent video, the ESA showcased its plans for the future, which include some new launch vehicles and engine technology.

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NASA Tests Out 3D-printed Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine!

Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, conduct a successful, 251-second hot fire test of a full-scale Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine combustor in fall 2023, achieving more than 5,800 pounds of thrust. Credit: NASA

Looking to the future, NASA is investigating several technologies that will allow it to accomplish some bold objectives. This includes returning to the Moon, creating the infrastructure that will let us stay there, sending the first crewed mission to Mars, exploring the outer Solar System, and more. This is particularly true of propulsion technologies beyond conventional chemical rockets and engines. One promising technology is the Rotating Detonation Engine (RDE), which relies on one or more detonations that continuously travel around an annular channel.

In a recent hot fire test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the agency achieved a new benchmark in developing RDE technology. On September 27th, engineers successfully tested a 3D-printed rotating detonation rocket engine (RDRE) for 251 seconds, producing more than 2,630 kg (5,800 lbs) of thrust. This sustained burn meets several mission requirements, such as deep-space burns and landing operations. NASA recently shared the footage of the RDRE hot fire test (see below) as it burned continuously on a test stand at NASA Marshall for over four minutes.

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