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.
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.
When you think about sending missions to the Moon, every single gram counts on launch day. Therefore, it makes sense to live off the land when you arrive with in-situ resource utilization. For example, what if you could fly a rover without wheels and 3D print them out of lunar regolith when you get there?
It just might happen.
Researchers used a 3D printer to build the same design for a wheel that will be part of the upcoming NASA VIPER rover. It was done using additive manufacturing (another word for 3D printing), melting metal powder and laying down and bonding a large number of successive thin layers of materials into the designed shape.
Missions to the Moon, missions to Mars, robotic explorers to the outer Solar System, a mission to the nearest star, and maybe even a spacecraft to catch up to interstellar objects passing through our system. If you think this sounds like a description of the coming age of space exploration, then you’d be correct! At this moment, there are multiple plans and proposals for missions that will send astronauts and/or probes to all of these destinations to conduct some of the most lucrative scientific research ever performed. Naturally, these mission profiles raise all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is propulsion.
Simply put, humanity is reaching the limits of what conventional (chemical) propulsion can do. To send missions to Mars and other deep space destinations, advanced propulsion technologies are required that offer high acceleration (delta-v), specific impulse (Isp), and fuel efficiency. In a recent paper, Leiden Professor Florian Neukart proposes how future missions could rely on a novel propulsion concept known as the Magnetic Fusion Plasma Drive (MFPD). This device combines aspects of different propulsion methods to create a system that offers high energy density and fuel efficiency significantly greater than conventional methods.
Engineers working with the European Space Agency have developed a new thruster design smaller than the tip of your finger. Despite its small size, this mini-thruster designed for CubeSats appears to be highly efficient without the use of toxic chemicals.
We’re all basking in the success of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s fulfilling its promise as our most powerful telescope, making all kinds of discoveries that we’ve been anticipating and hoping for. But the JWST’s story is one of broken budgets, repeated requests for more time and money, and near-cancellations.
The concept of supersonic transport (SST) has been a part of the commercial flight and aerospace sector since the 1970s. But as the Concorde demonstrated, the technology’s commercial viability has always been hampered by various challenges. For starters, supersonic planes must limit their speed to about 965 km/h (600 mph) over land to prevent damage caused by their sonic booms. Given the potential for flying from New York City to London in about 3.5 hours, which otherwise takes about 8 hours on average, aerospace engineers hope to overcome this problem.
Since 2006, the NASA Commercial Supersonic Technology Project (CSTP) has been researching SST as part of its QueSST mission and the X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft to reduce sonic booms, thus removing a crucial barrier to commercial development. Recently, NASA investigated whether commercial supersonic jets could theoretically travel from one major city to another at speeds between Mach 2 and 4 – 2,470 to 4,940 km/h (1,535 to 3,045 mph) at sea level. These studies concluded that there are potential passenger markets along 50 established routes, which could revolutionize air travel.
In 2017, humanity got its first glimpse of an interstellar object (ISO), known as 1I/’Oumuamua, which buzzed our planet on its way out of the Solar System. Speculation abound as to what this object could be because, based on the limited data collected, it was clear that it was like nothing astronomers had ever seen. A controversial suggestion was that it might have been an extraterrestrial probe (or a piece of a derelict spacecraft) passing through our system. Public fascination with the possibility of “alien visitors” was also bolstered in 2021 with the release of the UFO Report by the ODNI.
This move effectively made the study of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) a scientific pursuit rather than a clandestine affair overseen by government agencies. With one eye on the skies and the other on orbital objects, scientists are proposing how recent advances in computing, AI, and instrumentation can be used to assist in the detection of possible “visitors.” This includes a recent study by a team from the University of Strathclyde that proposes how hyperspectral imaging paired with machine learning could lead to an advanced data pipeline for characterizing UAP.
In the near future, NASA and other space agencies plan to send crews beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to perform long-duration missions on the Moon and Mars. To meet this challenge, NASA is developing life support systems that will sustain crew members without the need for resupply missions from Earth. These systems must be regenerative and closed-loop in nature, meaning they will recycle consumables like food, air, and water without zero waste. Currently, crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS) rely on an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) to meet their needs.
This system recycles air aboard the station by passing it through filters that scrub excess carbon dioxide produced by the crew’s exhalations. Meanwhile, the system uses advanced dehumidifiers to capture moisture from the crew’s exhalation and perspiration and sends this to the Water Purification Assembly (WPA). Another subsystem, called Urine Processor Assembly (UPA), recovers and distills water from astronaut urine. To boost the WPA’s efficiency, the crew integrated a new component called the Brine Processor Assembly (BPA), which recently passed an important milestone.
By 2030, multiple space agencies will have sent astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program ended over 50 years ago. These programs will create lasting infrastructure, like the Lunar Gateway, Artemis Base Camp, Moon Village, and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). In the ensuing decade, the first crewed missions to Mars are expected to occur, culminating with the creation of the first human outposts on another planet. Commercial ventures also want to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), enabling everything from asteroid mining to space tourism.
One of the biggest challenges for this renewed era of space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is ensuring that humans can remain healthy while spending extended periods in space. Foremost among them is ensuring that crews have functioning life support systems that can provide a steady supply of breathable air, which poses its own technical challenges. In a recent study, a team of researchers led by Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick described how artificial photosynthesis could lead to a new type of life support system that is smaller, lighter, easier, and more cost-effective to send to space.