Weekly Space Hangout: Nov 21, 2018: Bruce Betts’ “Astronomy for Kids”

Hosts:

Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

This week, we are joined by Dr. Bruce Betts, Chief Scientist and LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society. Prior to working on the LightSail program, Dr. Betts managed a number of flight instrument projects at the Planetary Society, including silica glass DVDs on the Mars Exploration Rovers and Phoenix lander, the LIFE biology experiment that flew on the Russian Phobos sample return mission, and he led a NASA grant studying microrovers assisting human exploration. Dr. Betts new children’s book, “”Astronomy for Kids: How to Observe Outer Space with a Telescope, Binoculars, or Just Your Eyes!”” is now available in time for holiday gift giving.

Prior to joining the Planetary Society, Dr. Betts, a planetary scientist, studied planetary surfaces, including Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter’s moons, using infrared and other data, during his time at San Juan Institute/Planetary Science Institute. Additionally, Dr. Betts spent three years at NASA headquarters managing planetary instrument development programs to design spacecraft science instruments.

You can learn more about Dr. Betts by visiting http://www.planetary.org/about/staff/bruce-betts.html.

If you want to learn about his new book and how to order it, visit http://www.planetary.org/blogs/bruce-betts/astronomy-for-kids.html

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Breakthrough Starshot is Now Looking for the Companies to Build its Laser-Powered Solar Sails to Other Stars

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner established Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In April of the following year, he and the organization be founded announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot, a program to create a lightsail-driven “wafercraft” that would make the journey to the nearest star system – Proxima Centauri – within our lifetime.

In the latest development, on Wednesday May 23rd, Breakthrough Starshot held an “industry day” to outline their plans for developing the Starshot laser sail. During this event, the Starshot committee submitted a Request For Proposals (RFP) to potential bidders, outlining their specifications for the sail that will carry the wafercraft as it makes the journey to Proxima Centauri within our lifetimes.

As we have noted in several previous articles, Breakthrough Starshot calls for the creation of a gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a laser sail. This sail will be accelerated by an Earth-based laser array to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light (o.2 c). This concept builds upon the idea of a solar sail, a spacecraft that relies on solar wind to push itself through space.

An artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Proxima Centauri, located 4.246 light-years away – in just 20 years time. Since its inception, the team behind Breakthrough Starshot has invested considerable time and energy addressing the conceptual and engineering challenges such a mission would entail. And with this latest briefing, they are now looking to move the project from concept to reality.

In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Abraham Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. As he explained to Universe Today via email:

“Starshot is an initiative to send a probe to the nearest star system at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will get there within a human lifetime of a couple of decades. The goal is to obtain photos of exo-planets like Proxima b, which is in the habitable zone of the nearest star Proxima Centauri, four light years away. The technology adopted for fulfilling this challenge uses a powerful (100 Giga-watt) laser beam pushing on a lightweight (1 gram) sail to which a lightweight electronics chip is attached (with a camera, navigation and communication devices). The related technology development is currently funded at $100M by Yuri Milner through the Breakthrough Foundation.”

In addition to outlining BI’s many efforts to find ETI – which include Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Message and Breakthrough Watch – the RFP focused on Starshot’s Objectives. As was stated in the RFP:

“The scope of this RFP addresses the Technology Development phase – to explore LightSail concepts, materials, fabrication and measurement methods, with accompanying analysis and simulation that creates advances toward a viable path to a scalable and ultimately deployable LightSail.”

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

As Loeb indicated, this RFP comes not long after another “industry day” that was related to the development of the technology of the laser – termed the “Photon Engine”. In contrast, this particular RFP was dedicated to the design of the laser sail itself, which will carry the nanocraft to Proxima Centauri.

“The Industry Day was intended to inform potential partners about the project and request for proposals (RFP) associated with research on the sail materials and design,” added Loeb. “Within the next few years we hope to demonstrate the feasibility of the required sail and laser technologies. The project will allocate funds to experimental teams who will conduct the related research and development work. ”

The RFP also addressed Starshot’s long-term goals and its schedule for research and development in the coming years. These include the investment in $100 million over the next five years to determine the feasibility of the laser and sail, to invest the value of the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) from year 6 to year 11 and build a low-power prototype for space testing, and invest the value of the Large Hardon Collider (LHC) over a 20 year period to develop the final spacecraft.

“The European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) will cost on order of a billion [dollars] and the Large Hadron Collider cost was ten times higher,’ said Loeb. “These projects were mentioned to calibrate the scale of the cost for the future phases in the Starshot project, where the second phase will involve producing a demo system and the final step will involve the complete launch system.”

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The research and development schedule for the sail was also outlined, with three major phases identified over the next 5 years. Phase 1 (which was the subject of the RFP) would entail the development of concepts, models and subscale testing. Phase 2 would involve hardware validation in a laboratory setting, while Phase 3 would consist of field demonstrations.

With this latest “industry day” complete, Starshot is now open for submissions from industry partners looking to help them realize their vision. Step A proposals, which are to consist of a five-page summary, are due on June 22nd and will be assessed by Harry Atwater (the Chair of the Sail Subcommittee) as well as Kevin Parkin (head of Parkin Research), Jim Benford (muWave Sciences) and Pete Klupar (the Project Manager).

Step B proposals, which are to consist of a more detailed, fifteen-page summary, will be due on July 10th. From these, the finalists will be selected by Pete Worden, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Starshot. If all goes according to plan, the initiative hopes to launch the first lasersail-driven nanocraft in to Proxima Centauri in 30 years and see it arrive there in 50 years.

So if you’re an aerospace engineer, or someone who happens to run a private aerospace firm, be sure to get your proposals ready! To learn more about Starshot, the engineering challenges they are addressing, and their research, follow the links provided to the BI page. To see the slides and charts from the RFP, check out Starshot’s Solicitations page.

Further Reading: Centauri Dreams, Breakthrough Starshot

A Novel Concept For Braking Breakthrough Starshot

In April of 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot. As part of his non-profit scientific organization (known as Breakthrough Initiatives), the purpose of Starshot was to design a lightsail nanocraft that would be capable of reaching the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigel Kentaurus) – within our lifetime.

Since its inception, the scientists and engineers behind the Starshot concept have sought to address the challenges that such a mission would face. Similarly, there have been many in the scientific community who have also made suggestions as to how such a concept could work. The latest comes from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, where two researchers came up with a novel way of slowing the craft down once it reaches its destination.

To recap, the Starshot concept involves a small, gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a lightsail. Using a ground-based laser array, this lightsail would be accelerated to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light. At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Alpha Centauri, located 4.37 light-years away – in just 20 years time.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Naturally, this presents a number of technical challenges – which include the possibility of a collision with interstellar dust, the proper shape of the lightsail, and the sheer energy requirements for powering the laser array. But equally important is the idea of how such a craft would slow down once it reached its destination. With no lasers at the other end to apply breaking energy, how would the craft slow down enough to begin studying the system?

It was this very question that René Heller and Michael Hippke chose to address in their study, “Deceleration of high-velocity interstellar photon sails into bound orbits at Alpha Centauri“. Heller is an astrophysicts who is currently assisting the ESA with its preparations for the upcoming PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission – an exoplanet hunter being deployed as part of their Cosmic Vision program.

With the help IT specialist Michael Hippke, the two considered what would be needed for interstellar mission to reach Alpha Centauri, and provide good scientific returns upon its arrival. This would require that braking maneuvers be conducted once it arrived so the the spacecraft would not overshoot the system in the blink of an eye. As they state in their study:

“Although such an interstellar probe could reach Proxima 20 years after launch, without propellant to slow it down it would traverse the system within hours. Here we demonstrate how the stellar photon pressures of the stellar triple Alpha Cen A, B, and C (Proxima) can be used together with gravity assists to decelerate incoming solar sails from Earth.”

The projected path a lightsail mission to Alpha Centauri could take, which would allow it to detour to Proxima Centauri. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

For the sake of their calculations, Heller and Hippke estimated that the craft would weigh less than 100 grams (3.5 ounces), and would be mounted on a sail measuring 100,000 m² (1,076,391 square foot) in surface area. Once these were complete, Hippke adapted them into a series of computer simulations. Based on their results, they proposed an entirely new mission concept that do away with the need for lasers entirely.

In essence, their revised concept called for an Autonomous Active Sail (AAS) craft that would provide for its own propulsion and stopping power. This craft would deploy its sail while in the Solar System and use the Sun’s solar wind to accelerate it to high speeds. Once it reached the Alpha Centauri System, it would redeploy its sail so that incoming radiation from Alpha Centauri A and B would have the effect of slowing it down.

An added bonus of this proposed maneuver is that the craft, once it had been decelerated to the point that it could effectively explore the Alpha Centauri system, could then use a gravity assist from these stars to reroute itself towards Proxima Centauri. Once there, it could conduct the first up-close exploration of Proxima b – the closest exoplanet to Earth – and determine what its atmospheric and surface conditions are like.

Since the existence of this planet was first announced by the European Southern Observatory back in August of 2016, there has been much speculation about whether or not it could be habitable. Having a mission that could examine it to check for the telltale markers – a viable atmosphere, a magnetosphere, and liquid water on the surface – would surely settle that debate.

As Heller explained in a press release from the Max Planck Institute, this concept presents quite a few advantages, but comes with its share of trade offs – not the least of which is the time it would take to get to Alpha Centauri. “Our new mission concept could yield a high scientific return, but only the grandchildren of our grandchildren would receive it,” he said. “Starshot, on the other hand, works on a timescale of decades and could be realized in one generation. So we might have identified a longterm, follow-up concept for Starshot.”

At present, Heller and Hippke are discussing their concept with Breakthrough Starshot to see if it would be viable. One individual who has looked over their work is Professor Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, and the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. As he told Universe Today via email, the concept put forth by Heller and Hippke is worthy of consideration, but has its limitations:

“If it is possible to slow down a spacecraft by starlight (and gravitational assist), then it is also possible to launch it in the first place by the same forces… If so, why is the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot project using a laser and not Sunlight to propel our spacecraft? The answer is that our envisioned laser array can push the sail with an energy flux that is a million times larger than the local solar flux.

“In using starlight to reach relativistic speeds, one must use an extremely thin sail. In the new paper, Heller and Hippke consider the example of a milligram instead of a gram-scale sail. For a sail of area ten square meters (as envisioned in our Starshot concept study), the thickness of their sail must be only a few atoms. Such a surface is orders of magnitude thinner than the wavelength of light that it aims to reflect, and so its reflectivity would be low. It does not appear feasible to reduce the weight by so many orders of magnitude and yet maintain the rigidity and reflectivity of the sail material.

“The main constraint in defining the Starshot concept was to visit Alpha Centauri within our lifetime. Extending the travel time beyond the lifetime of a human, as advocated in this paper, would make it less appealing to the people involved. Also, one should keep in mind that the sail must be accompanied by electronics which will add significantly to its weight.”

In short, if time is not a factor, we can envision that our first attempts to reach another Solar System may indeed involve an AAS being propelled and slowed down by solar wind. But if we’re willing to wait centuries for such a mission to be completed, we might also consider sending rockets with conventional engines (possibly even crewed ones) to Alpha Centauri.

But if we are intent on getting there within our own lifetimes, then a laser-driven sail or something similar will have be the way to go. Humanity has spent over half a century exploring what’s in our own backyard, and some of us are impatient to see what’s next door!

Further Reading: Max Planck Institute, ArXiv

What’s the Most Stable Shape for an Interstellar Lightsail?

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner founded Breakthrough Initiatives with the intention of bolstering the search for extra-terrestrial life. Since that time, the non-profit organization – which is backed by Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg – has announced a number of advanced projects. The most ambitious of these is arguably Project Starshot, an interstellar mission that would make the journey to the nearest star in just 20 years.

This concept involves an ultra-light nanocraft that would rely on a laser-driven sail to achieve speeds of up to 20% the speed of light. Naturally, for such a mission to be successful, a number of engineering challenges have to be tackled first. And according to a recent study by a team of international researchers, two of the most important issues are the shape of the sail itself, and the type of laser involved.

The researchers include Elena Popova of the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics in Moscow; Messoud Efendiev of the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) at the German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH); and Ildar Gabitov of the Skoltech Center for Photonics and Quantum Materials in Moscow. Combining their expertise, they conducted a study that examined various stability models for this proposed mission.

As they indicate in their study, titled “On the Stability of a Space Vehicle Riding on an Intense Laser Beam“, the team ran stability simulations 0n the concept, taking into account the nature of the wafer-sized craft (aka. StarChip), the sail (aka. Lightsail) and the nature of the laser itself. For the sake of these simulations, they also factored in a number of assumptions about Starshot’s design.

These included the notion that the StarChip would be a rigid body (i.e. made up of solid material), that the circular sail would either be flat, spherical or conical (i.e. concave in shape), and that the surface of the sail would reflect the laser light. Beyond this, they played with multiple variations on the design, and came up with some rather telling results.

As Dr. Elena Popova, the lead author on the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“We considered different shapes of sail: a) spherical (coincides with parabolic for small sizes) as most appropriate for final configuration of nanocraft en route; b) conical; c) flat (simplest) (will be seen to be unstable so that even spinning of craft does not help).”

What they found was that the simplest, stable configuration would involve a sail that was spherical in shape. It would also require that the StarChip be tethered at a sufficient distance from the sail, one which would be longer than the curvature radius of the sail itself.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives.
A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

“For the sail with almost flat cone shape we obtained similar stability condition,” said Popova. “The nanocraft with flat sail is unstable in every case. It simply corresponds to the case of infinite radius of curvature of the sale. Hence, there is no way to extend center of mass beyond it.”

As for the laser, they considered several how the two main types would effect stability. This included uniform lasers that have a sharp boundary and “Gaussian” beams, which are characterized by high-intensity in the middle that declines rapidly towards the edges. As Dr. Popova stated, they determined that in order to ensure stability – and that the craft wouldn’t be lost to space – a uniform laser was the way to go.

“The nanocraft driven by intense laser beam pressure acting on its Lightsail is sensitive to the torques and lateral forces reacting on the surface of the sail. These forces influence the orientation and lateral displacement of the spacecraft, thus affecting its dynamics. If unstable the nanocraft might even be expelled from the area of laser beam. The most dangerous perturbations in the position of nanocraft inside the beam and its orientation relative to the beam axis are those with direct coupling between rotation and displacement (“spin-orbit coupling”).”

In the end, these were very similar to the conclusions reached by Professor Abraham Loeb and his colleagues at Starshot. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Prof. Loeb is also the chairman of the Breakthrough Foundation’s Advisory Board. In a study titled Stability of a Light Sail Riding on a Laser Beam” (published on Sept, 29th, 2016), they too examined what was necessary to ensure a stable mission.

This included the benefits of a conical vs. a spherical sail, and a uniform vs. a Gaussian beam. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“We found that a parachute-shaped sail riding on a Gaussian laser beam is unstable… We show in our paper that a sail shaped as a spherical shell (like a large ping-pong ball) can ride in a stable fashion on a laser beam that is shaped like a cylinder (or 3-4 lasers that establish a nearly circular illumination).”

As for the recommendations about the StarChip being at a sufficient distance from the LightSail, Prof. Loeb and his colleagues are of a different mind. “They argue that in case you attach a weight to the sail that is sufficiently well separated from the parachute, you might make it stable.” he said. “Even if this is true, it is unclear that their proposal is useful because such a configuration is rather complicated to build and launch.”

These are just a few of the engineering challenges facing an interstellar mission. Back in September, another study was released that assessed the risk of collisions and how it might effect the Starshot mission. In this case, the researchers suggested that the sail have a layer of shielding to absorb impacts, and that the laser array be used to clear debris in the LightSail’s path.

These conclusions echoed a similar study produced by Professor Phillip Lubin and his colleagues. A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Lubin is also one of the chief architects of Project Starshot and the mind behind the NASA-funded Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploraiton (DEEP-IN) project and the Directed Energy Interstellar Study.

When Milner and the science team behind Starshot first announced their intention to create an interstellar spacecraft (in April 2016), they were met with a great deal of enthusiasm and skepticism. Understandably, many believed that such a mission was too ambitious, due to the challenges involved. But with every challenge that has been addressed, both by the Starshot team and outside researchers, the mission architecture has evolved.

At this rate, barring any serious complications, we may be seeing an interstellar mission taking place within a decade or so. And, barring any hiccups in the mission, we could be exploring Alpha Centauri or Proxima b up close within our lifetime!

Further Reading: arXiv

Finding Aliens May Be Even Easier Than Previously Thought

Finding examples of intelligent life other than our own in the Universe is hard work. Between spending decades listening to space for signs of radio traffic – which is what the good people at the SETI Institute have been doing – and waiting for the day when it is possible to send spacecraft to neighboring star systems, there simply haven’t been a lot of options for finding extra-terrestrials.

But in recent years, efforts have begun to simplify the search for intelligent life. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Breakthrough Foundation, it may be possible in the coming years to send “nanoscraft” on interstellar voyages using laser-driven propulsion. But just as significant is the fact that developments like these may also make it easier for us to detect extra-terrestrials that are trying to find us.

Not long ago, Breakthrough Initiatives made headlines when they announced that luminaries like Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg were backing their plan to send a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this plan involved a refrigerator-sized magnet being towed by a laser sail, which would be pushed by a ground-based laser array to speeds fast enough to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.

In addition to offering a possible interstellar space mission that could reach another star in our lifetime, projects like this have the added benefit of letting us broadcast our presence to the rest of the Universe. Such is the argument put forward by Philip Lubin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the brains behind Starshot.

In a paper titled “The Search for Directed Intelligence” – which appeared recently in arXiv and will be published soon in REACH – Reviews in Human Space Exploration – Lubin explains how systems that are becoming technologically feasible on Earth could allow us to search for similar technology being used elsewhere. In this case, by alien civilizations. As Lubin shared with Universe Today via email:

“In our SETI paper we examine the implications of a civilization having directed energy systems like we are proposing for both our NASA and Starshot programs. In this sense the NASA (DE-STAR) and Starshot arrays represent what other civilizations may possess. In another way, the receive mode (Phased Array Telescope) may be useful to search and study nearby exoplanets.”

DE-STAR, or the Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, is another project being developed by scientists at UCSB. This proposed system will use lasers to target and deflect asteroids, comets, and other Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). Along with the Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN), a NASA-backed UCSB project that is based on Lubin’s directed-energy concept, they represent some of the most ambitious directed-energy concepts currently being pursued.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity's first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org
Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Using these as a template, Lubin believes that other species in the Universe could be using this same kind of directed energy (DE) systems for the same purposes – i.e. propulsion, planetary defense, scanning, power beaming, and communications. And by using a rather modest search strategy, he and colleagues propose observing nearby star and planetary systems to see if there are any signs of civilizations that possess this technology.

This could take the form of “spill-over”, where surveys are able to detect errant flashes of energy. Or they could be from an actual beacon, assuming the extra-terrestrials us DE to communicate. As is stated in the paper authored by Lubin and his colleagues:

“There are a number of reasons a civilization would use directed energy systems of the type discussed here. If other civilizations have an environment like we do they might use DE system for applications such as propulsion, planetary defense against “debris” such as asteroids and comets, illumination or scanning systems to survey their local environment, power beaming across large distances among many others. Surveys that are sensitive to these “utilitarian” applications are a natural byproduct of the “spill over” of these uses, though a systematic beacon would be much easier to detect.”
According to Lubin, this represents a major departure from what projects like SETI have been doing during the last few decades. These efforts, which can be classified as “passive” were understandable in the past, owing to our limited means and the challenges in sending out messages ourselves. For one, the distances involved in interstellar communication are incredibly vast.
The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
Directed-energy technology, such as the kind behind the Very Large Telescoping Interferometer, could be used by ET for communications. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

Even using DE, which moves at the speed of light, it would still take a message over 4 years to reach the nearest star, 1000 years to reach the Kepler planets, and 2 million years to the nearest galaxy (Andromeda). So aside from the nearest stars, these time scales are far beyond a human lifetime; and by the time the message arrived, far better means of communication would have evolved.

Second,  there is also the issue of the targets being in motion over the vast timescales involved. All stars have a transverse velocity relative to our line of sight, which means that any star system or planet targeted with a burst of laser communication would have moved by the time the beam arrived. So by adopting a pro-active approach, which involves looking for specific kinds of behavior, we could bolster our efforts to find intelligent life on distant exoplanets.

But of course, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome, not the least of which are technical. But more than that, there is also the fact that what we are looking for may not exist. As Lubin and his colleagues state in one section of the paper: “What is an assumption, of course, is that electromagnetic communications has any relevance on times scales that are millions of years and in particular that electromagnetic communications (which includes beacons) should have anything to do with wavelengths near human vision.”

In other words, assuming that aliens are using technology similar to our own is potentially anthropocentric. However, when it comes to space exploration and finding other intelligent species, we have to work with what we have and what we know. And as it stands, humanity is the only example of a space-faring civilization known to us. As such, we can hardly be faulted for projecting ourselves out there.

Here’s hoping ET is out there, and relies on energy beaming to get things done. And, fingers crossed, here’s hoping they aren’t too shy about being noticed!

Further Reading: arXiv

Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?

For generations, human beings have fantasized about the possibility of finding extra-terrestrial life. And with our ongoing research efforts to discover new and exciting extrasolar planets (aka. exoplanets) in distant star systems, the possibility of actually visiting one of these worlds has received a real shot in the arm. Unfortunately, given the astronomical distances involved, not to mention the cost of mounting an expedition, doing so presents numerous significant challenges.

However, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Foundation – an international organization committed to exploration and scientific research –  is determined to mount an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, our closest stellar neighbor, in the coming years. With the backing of such big name sponsors as Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking, his latest initiative (named “Project Starshot“) aims to send a tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri system to search for planets and signs of life.

Continue reading “Is Alpha Centauri The Best Place To Look For Aliens?”

Weekly Space Hangout – June 5, 2015: Stephen Fowler, Creative Director at InfoAge

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: This week we welcome Stephen Fowler, who is the Creative Director at InfoAge, the organization behind refurbishing the TIROS 1 dish and the Science History Learning Center and Museum at Camp Evans, Wall, NJ.

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – June 5, 2015: Stephen Fowler, Creative Director at InfoAge”

Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: This week we welcome Dr. Bradley M. Peterson, whose research is directed towards determination of the physical nature of active galactic nuclei.
Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 29, 2015: Dr. Bradley M. Peterson”

X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]

The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.

The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.

The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.

Also aboard the X-37B is a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.

“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.

“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”

“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.

The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.

Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles.

Boeing has built two OTV vehicles. But it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched today.

Altogether the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Hunting LightSail in Orbit

The hunt is on in the satellite tracking community, as the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret X-37B space plane rocketed into orbit today atop an Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral.  This marks the start of OTV-4, the X-37B’s fourth trip into low Earth orbit. And though NORAD won’t be publishing the orbital elements for the mission, it is sure to provide an interesting hunt for backyard satellite sleuths on the ground.

Previous OTV missions were placed in a 40 to 43.5 degree inclination orbit, and the current NOTAMs cite a 61 degree azimuth angle for today’s launch out of the Cape which suggests a slightly shallower 39 degree orbit. Such variability speaks to the versatile nature of the second stage Centaur motor.

Image credit:
A capture of the X-37B in orbit. Image credit and copyright: Luke (Catching up)

There’s also been word afoot that future X-37B missions may return to Earth at the Kennedy Space Center, just like the Space Shuttle. To date, the X-37B has only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

But there’s also another high interest payload being released along with a flock of CubeSats aboard AFPSC-5: The Planetary Society’s Lightsail-1.

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The UltraSat P-POD CubeSat dispenser. Image credit: United Launch Alliance

About the size of a loaf of bread and the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, LightSail is set to demonstrate key technologies in low Earth orbit before the Planetary Society’s main solar sail demonstrator takes to space in 2016.

The idea of using solar wind pressure for space travel is an enticing one. A big plus is the fact that unlike chemical propulsion, a solar sail does not need to contend with hauling the mass of its own fuel. The idea of using a solar sail plus a focused laser to propel an interstellar spacecraft has long been a staple of science fiction. But light-sailing technology has had a troubled history—the Planetary Society lost its Cosmos-1 mission launched from a Russian submarine in 2001. JAXA has fared better with its Venus-bound IKAROS, also equipped with a solar sail. To date, the IKAROS solar sail is the largest that has been deployed, at 20-metres on the diagonal.

Another use for space sail technology is the commanded reentry of spacecraft at the end of their mission life, as demonstrated by NanoSail-D2 in 2011.

Prospects of seeing LightSail may well be similar to what we had hunting for NanoSail-D2. Unfolded, LightSail will be 32 square meters in size, or about 5.6 meters on a side. NanoSail-D2 measured 3.1 meters on a side, and the reflective panels on the Iridium satellites which produce brilliant Iridium flares exceeding Venus in brightness measure about the size of a large rectangular door at 1 x 3 meters. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can flare on occasion as seen from the ground if one of its massive solar arrays catches the Sun just right.

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Hubble can flare too! Image credit: David Dickinson

The 39 degree orbital inclination angle will also limit visible passes to from about 45 degrees north to 45 degrees south latitude.

Hunting down X-37B and LightSail will push ground observing skills to the max. Like NanoSail-D2, LightSail probably won’t be visible to the naked eye until it flares. What we like to do is note when a faint satellite is set to pass by a bright star, then sit back with our trusty 15x 45 image-stabilized binoculars and watch. We caught sight of the ‘tool bag’ lost during an ISS EVA in 2009 in this fashion. There it was, drifting past Spica as a +7th magnitude ‘star’. The key to this method is an accurate prediction—Heavens-Above now overlays orbital satellite passes on all-sky charts—and an accurate time source. We prefer to have WWV radio running in the background, as it’ll call out the time signal so we don’t have to take our eyes off the sky.

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The orbital trace of OTV-3. Image credit: Orbitron

Veteran satellite watcher Ted Molczan recently discussed the prospects for spotting LightSail once it’s deployed.  “By then, the orbit will be visible from the northern hemisphere during the middle of the night. The southern hemisphere may have marginal evening passes. Note that the high area to mass ratio with the sail deployed, combined with the low perigee height, is expected to result in decay as soon as a couple days after deployment.”

Read a further discussion concerning OTV-4 and associated payloads by Mr. Molczan on the See-Sat message board here.

The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis confirmed for Universe Today that LightSail will deploy 28 days after launch. But we may only have a slim two day observation window for LightSail between deployment and reentry.

A deployment of LightSail 28 days after launch would put it in the June 16th timeframe.

“That’s the nominal mission time, yes,” Davis told Universe Today. “Our orbital models predict 2-10 days. For our 2016 flight, the mission will last at least four months.”

The Planetary Society plans to have a live ‘mission control center’ to track LightSail after P-POD deployment, complete with a Google Map showing pass predictions.

Satellite spotting can be a fun and addictive pastime, where part of the fun is sleuthing out what you’re seeing. Hey, some relics of space history such as the early Vanguards, Telstars, and Canada’s first satellite Alouette-1 are still up there! Nabbing these photographically are as simple as plopping your DSLR on a tripod, setting the focus and doing a time exposure as the satellite passes by.

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The X-37B undergoing encapsulation in preparation for launch. Image credit: USAF

Here’s to smooth solar sailing and clear skies as we embark on our quest to track down the X-37B and LightSail-1 in orbit.

-Follow us as @Astroguyz on Twitter, as we’ll be providing further info on orbits and visibility passes as they are made public.