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.

Continue reading “Reflectors in Space Could Make Solar Power More Effective”

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.

Continue reading “This Alien Landscape is Actually a Microscopic View of an Atomic Clock”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “ESA Gives Us a Glimpse of its Future Space Exploration Plans with a Cool New Video”

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.

Continue reading “NASA Tests Out 3D-printed Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine!”

Next Generation Space Telescopes Could Use Deformable Mirrors to Image Earth-Sized Worlds

The Roman Space Telescope Coronagraph during assembly of the static optics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Credits: Dr. Eduardo Bendek

Observing distant objects is no easy task, thanks to our planet’s thick and fluffy atmosphere. As light passes through the upper reaches of our atmosphere, it is refracted and distorted, making it much harder to discern objects at cosmological distances (billions of light years away) and small objects in adjacent star systems like exoplanets. For astronomers, there are only two ways to overcome this problem: send telescopes to space or equip telescopes with mirrors that can adjust to compensate for atmospheric distortion.

Since 1970, NASA and the ESA have launched more than 90 space telescopes into orbit, and 29 of these are still active, so it’s safe to say we’ve got that covered! But in the coming years, a growing number of ground-based telescopes will incorporate adaptive optics (AOs) that will allow them to perform cutting-edge astronomy. This includes the study of exoplanets, which next-generation telescopes will be able to observe directly using coronographs and self-adjusting mirrors. This will allow astronomers to obtain spectra directly from their atmospheres and characterize them to see if they are habitable.

Continue reading “Next Generation Space Telescopes Could Use Deformable Mirrors to Image Earth-Sized Worlds”

NASA is Getting the Plutonium it Needs for Future Missions

Close-up of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover as it looks back at its wheel tracks on March 17, 2022, the 381st Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA

Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) have a long history of service in space exploration. Since the first was tested in space in 1961, RTGs have gone on to be used by 31 NASA missions, including the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Packages (ALSEPs) delivered by the Apollo astronauts to the lunar surface. RTGs have also powered the Viking 1 and 2 missions to Mars, the Ulysses mission to the Sun, Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons missions to the outer Solar System – which are currently in (or well on their way to) interstellar space.

In recent years, RTGs have allowed the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers to continue the search for evidence of past (and maybe present) life on Mars. In the coming years, these nuclear batteries will power more astrobiology missions, like the Dragonfly mission that will explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. In recent years, there has been concern that NASA was running low on Plutonium-238, the key component for RTGs. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently delivered a large shipment of plutonium oxide, putting it on track to realize its goal of regular production of the radioisotopic material.

Continue reading “NASA is Getting the Plutonium it Needs for Future Missions”

Civilizations Could Use Gravitational Lenses to Transmit Power From Star to Star

A new study shows how Solar Gravitational Lenses (SGLs) could be used to beam power from one system to another.. Credit: NASA/ESA

In 1916, famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a geometric theory for how gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. The revolutionary theory remains foundational to our models of how the Universe formed and evolved. One of the many things GR predicted was what is known as gravitational lenses, where objects with massive gravitational fields will distort and magnify light coming from more distant objects. Astronomers have used lenses to conduct deep-field observations and see farther into space.

In recent years, scientists like Claudio Maccone and Slava Turyshev have explored how using our Sun as a Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) could have tremendous applications for astronomy and the Search for Extratterstiral Intelligence (SETI). Two notable examples include studying exoplanets in extreme detail or creating an interstellar communication network (a “galactic internet”). In a recent paper, Turyshev proposes how advanced civilizations could use stellar gravitational lenses to transmit power from star to star – a possibility that could have significant implications in our search for technosignatures.

Continue reading “Civilizations Could Use Gravitational Lenses to Transmit Power From Star to Star”

A New Superconducting Camera can Resolve Single Photons

With planned improvements, NIST’s new 400,000 single-wire superconducting camera, the highest resolution camera of its type, will have the capability to capture astronomical images under extremely low-light-level conditions. Credit: Image incorporates elements from pixaby and S. Kelley/NIST.

Researchers have built a superconducting camera with 400,000 pixels, which is so sensitive it can detect single photons. It comprises a grid of superconducting wires with no resistance until a photon strikes one or more wires. This shuts down the superconductivity in the grid, sending a signal. By combining the locations and intensities of the signals, the camera generates an image.

The researchers who built the camera, from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) say the architecture is scalable, and so this current iteration paves the way for even larger-format superconducting cameras that could make detections across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This would be ideal for astronomical ventures such as imaging faint galaxies or extrasolar planets, as well as biomedical research using near-infrared light to peer into human tissue.

Continue reading “A New Superconducting Camera can Resolve Single Photons”

NASA Tests a 3D Printed Aluminum Rocket Nozzle

The RAMFIRE nozzle performs a hot fire test at Marshall’s East test area stand 115. Credit: NASA

When it comes to the current era of space exploration, one of the most important trends is the way new technologies and processes are lowering the cost of sending crews and payloads to space. Beyond the commercial space sector and the development of retrievable and reusable rockets, space agencies are also finding new ways to make space more accessible and affordable. This includes NASA, which recently built and tested an aluminum rocket engine nozzle manufactured using their new Reactive Additive Manufacturing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (RAMFIRE) process.

Continue reading “NASA Tests a 3D Printed Aluminum Rocket Nozzle”