How Canadarm Sparked A Space Artist’s Love of The Universe

OTTAWA, CANADA – A small Canadian community seems an unlikely spot for an artist now working with Mars One (those people plotting a one-way trip to Mars) and asteroid mining concept company Deep Space Industries. But that’s how Bryan Versteeg got his start in life and — despite his remoteness — found space inspiration from an iconic Canadian technology.

“In a small, isolated Canadian community, I wasn’t really exposed to space exploration at all. I had no one around me who was in the industry. The only thing I had that talked to me about Canadians in space  … was the Canadarm,” said Versteeg in a speech Nov. 15.

“So growing up as a kid I’d see this Canadian flag prominently featured on one of the most incredible industrial pieces of machinery put into space,” he added, saying one of his goals now is to “stick the Canadian flag where I can.” Flashing a picture of a futuristic Mars base sporting a flag, he said, “Why not? If this place is going to be built by anyone, it’s built by Canadians.”

Artist's conception of Mars One. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg
Artist’s conception of Mars One. Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg

Today, Versteeg does artistic work for Deep Space Industries as well as Mars One, work that initially first reached the space community because he put information out on his website and people who were interested in colonization came to him to share ideas, he said.

“I imagine concepts, and I work with people who are trying to develop concepts and show concepts. Although most of the work is self-directed, I worked on 40 projects in the past two years,” he said.

In a sense, he feels that Mars is even easier to communicate with than the far North a few decades ago. When he was living in Inuvik (in Canada’s Northwest Territories) in the 1980s, it would take 2.5 weeks to get a reply from a letter, he said.

Versteeg delivered his remarks at the Canadian Space Society’s annual summit, held this year (Nov. 14 to 15) in Ottawa, Canada.

Proposed Balloon Ride Would Let You See The Blackness Of Space

Doesn’t that look fun? A startup company is proposing to send customers 19 miles (30 kilometers) into the air via balloon, where they can linger for two hours and look at the curvature of the Earth and experience a black sky. While it’s not high enough to qualify as a spaceflight, the listed ticket price may be a little more affordable for space enthusiasts: $75,000.

Don’t get too excited yet — the project appears to be in very early stages, and no “first flight” date is listed yet. But there are some interesting notes for those looking for space and science experience in the company.

  • Among the members of its executive is Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons Pluto mission and NASA’s former associate administrator for the science mission directorate. (He’s also the CEO of the Golden Spike company that wants to offer commercial human missions to the moon.)
  • The executive also includes Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, who were both members of Biosphere 2. More recently, they also took on senior positions in Inspiration Mars, a Dennis Tito-led project that aims to send humans past Mars. (The target launch date for that is Jan. 5, 2018.)
  • The company proposing to build it is Paragon Space Development Corp. (which Poynter and MacCallum co-founded.) Paragon’s customers for thermal, environment and life support systems include a lot of name brands (including NASA). Paragon is also doing work for the Inspiration Mars project as well as Mars One, which aims to send colonists on a one-way trip to the Red Planet by 2023.
Artist's conception of World View's passenger capsule that will be carried aloft during a proposed balloon flight. Credit: World View Enterprises Inc.
Artist’s conception of World View’s passenger capsule that will be carried aloft during a proposed balloon flight. Credit: World View Enterprises Inc.

“Seeing the Earth hanging in the ink-black void of space will help people realize our connection to our home planet and to the universe around us, and will surely offer a transformative experience to our customers,” stated Poynter, who is CEO of World View. “It is also our goal to open up a whole new realm for exercising human curiosity, scientific research and education.”

World View’s announcement came after the Federal Aviation Administration “determined that World View’s spacecraft and its operations fall under the jurisdiction of the office of Commercial Space Flight,” the company added.

More information on their mission is available on the World View website. It’s a bit of a different track than Virgin Galactic and XCOR, who are offering rides into suborbital space for prices of $250,000 and $95,000, respectively. Neither company has an operational spacecraft yet, but they are in flight testing. Reports indicate they are hoping to get flights going next year.

So You Wanna Go To Space. Can You Put Up With The Superpower Bacteria?

We all love space here and we’re sure, given that thousands of people applied for a one-way trip to Mars, that at least some of you want to spend a long time in a spacecraft. But have you thought about the bacteria that will be going along with you?

If you don’t feel too squirmy to read on, understand this: one type of bacteria grown aboard two shuttle missions ended up being bigger and thicker than control colonies on Earth, new NASA research shows.

Two astronaut crews aboard space shuttle Atlantis grew colonies of bacteria (more properly speaking, biofilms) on behalf of researchers on Earth. Most biofilms are harmless, but a small number could be associated with disease.

Biofilms were all over the Mir space station, and managing them is also a “challenge” (according to NASA) on the International Space Station. Well, here’s how they appeared in this study:

“The space-grown communities of bacteria, called biofilms, formed a ‘column-and-canopy’ structure not previously observed on Earth,” NASA stated. “Biofilms grown during spaceflight had a greater number of live cells, more biomass, and were thicker than control biofilms grown under normal gravity conditions.”

Astronauts strut their superpowers on the final shuttle mission, STS-135, where they also examined bacteria growth. Credit: NASA
Astronauts strut their superpowers on the final shuttle mission, STS-135. Turns out bacteria acquire some super-growth in microgravity, too. Credit: NASA

The type of microorganism examined was Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which was grown for three days each on STS-132 and STS-135 in artificial urine. That was chosen because, a press release stated, “it is a physiologically relevant environment for the study of biofilms formed both inside and outside the human body, and due to the importance of waste and water recycling systems to long-term spaceflight.”

Each shuttle mission had several vials of this … stuff … in which to introduce the bacteria in orbit. The viles included cellulose membranes on which the bacteria could grow. Researchers also tested bacteria growth on Earth with similar vials. Then, all the samples were rounded up in the lab after the shuttle missions where the biofilms’ thickness, number of cells and volume was examined, as well as their structure.

This is still early-stage work, of course, requiring follow-up studies to find out how the low-gravity environment affects these microorganisms’ growth, according to lead researcher Cynthia Collins from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Metabolism and virulence are what the scientists are hoping to learn more about in the future.

Samples of bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Credit: NASA
Samples of bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Credit: NASA

“Before we start sending astronauts to Mars or embarking on other long-term spaceflight missions, we need to be as certain as possible that we have eliminated or significantly reduced the risk that biofilms pose to the human crew and their equipment,” stated Collins, an assistant professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering.

While this research has more immediate implications for astronaut health, the researchers added that better understanding the biofilms could lead to better treatment and prevention for Earth diseases.

“Examining the effects of spaceflight on biofilm formation can provide new insights into how different factors, such as gravity, fluid dynamics, and nutrient availability affect biofilm formation on Earth. Additionally, the research findings could one day help inform new, innovative approaches for curbing the spread of infections in hospitals,” a NASA press release stated.

If you’re not feeling too itchy by now, you can read the entire study in an April issue of PLOS ONE.

Credit: NASA

NASA Looks at 3-D Food Printer for Star Trek-like Replicator

The International Space Station may soon have its very own Star Trek food replicator.

Earlier this week, NASA awarded a $125,000 six month grant to the Systems & Materials Research Cooperation to design a 3D printer capable of printing a pizza from 30-year shelf stable foodstuffs.

Founded by Anjan Contractor, SMRC built a basic food printer from a chocolate printer to win NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program in a trial video. The design is based on an open-source RepRap 3D printer.

Contractor and SMRC will begin construction on the pizza-printing prototype in two weeks. Pizza has been one item missing from astronauts menu for years. The 3D printer would “build-up” a pizza serving by first layering out the dough onto a heated plate then adding tomato sauce and toppings.

But this isn’t your mother’s pizza, as the proteins would be provided by cartridge injectors filled with organic base powders derived from algae, insects and grass.

Yummy stuff, to be sure!

Of course, one can see an immediate application of 3D food printing technology for long duration space missions. Contractor and SMRC envisions 3D food printing as the wave of the future, with the capacity to solve world hunger for a burgeoning human population.

Could a 3D food printer be coming to a kitchen near you?

Curiously, printing confectioneries and pet food pellets would be the simplest application of said technology. Printing a soufflé and crowned rack of lamb will be tougher. 3D printing technology has made great strides as of late, and RepRap has made a printer which is capable of printing itself. Those who fear the rise of Von Neumann’s self-replicating robots should take note…

Should we welcome or fear our self-replicating, pizza-bearing overlords?

The International Space Station is due for the delivery of its first 3D printer in 2014. This will give astros the capability to fabricate simple parts and tools onsite without requiring machining. Of course, the first question on our minds is: How will a 3D printer function in zero-g? Will one have tomato paste an insect parts flying about? Recent flights aboard a Boeing 727 by Made in Space Inc have been testing 3D printers in micro-gravity environments.

Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).
Made in Space demonstrates 3D Printing technology headed to the ISS next year. (Credit: Made in Space Inc./NASA).

Further afield, 3D replicators may arrive on the Moon or Mars ahead of humans, building a prefab colony with raw materials available for colonists to follow.

Artist's conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).
Artist’s conception of a lunar base constructed with 3D printing technology. (Credit: NASA Lunar Science Institute).

Will 3D food replicators pioneered by SMRC be a permanent fixture on crewed long duration space missions? Plans such as Dennis Tito’s Mars 2018 flyby and the one way Mars One proposal will definitely have to address the dietary dilemmas of hungry astronauts. Biosphere 2 demonstrated that animal husbandry will be impractical  on long term missions. Future Martian colonists will definitely eat much farther down the food chain to survive. SpaceX head Elon Musk has recently said in a Twitter response to PETA that he won’t be the “Kale Eating Overlord of Mars,” and perhaps “micro-ranching” of insects will be the only viable alternative to filet mignon on the Red Planet. Hey, it beats Soylent Green… and the good news is, you can still brew beer from algae!

Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).
Diagram of a proposed 3D food printer based on ReRap. (Credit: SMRC).

Would YOU take a one way journey to Mars? Would you eat a bug to do it? It’ll be interesting to watch these 3D printers in action as they take to space and print America’s favorite delivery fast food. But it’s yet to be seen if home replicators will put Dominos Pizza out of business anytime soon. Perhaps they’ll only be viable if they can print a pizza in less than “30 minutes!”

Weekly Space Hangout – April 26, 2013

We had an action packed Weekly Space Hangout on Friday, with a vast collection of different stories in astronomy and spaceflight. This week’s panel included Alan Boyle, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, Scott Lewis, Jason Major, and Dr. Matthew Francis. Hosted by Fraser Cain.

Some of the stories we covered included: Pulsar Provides Confirmation of General Relativity, Meteorites Crashing into Saturn’s Rings, Radio Observations of Betelgeuse, Progress Docks with the ISS, Hubble Observes Comet ISON, Grasshopper Jumps 250 Meters, April 25th Lunar Eclipse, and the Mars One Reality Show.

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).

Humans on Mars by 2023?

Reality TV goes to Mars! Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is leading a group visionaries and businesspeople who want to send four humans to Mars by 2023, and they say they can achieve their goal at an estimated cost of $6 billion USD. How can they do it? By building it into a global media spectacle. And oh, by the way, this will be a one-way trip.

“Who would be able to look away from an adventure such as this one?” asks Lansdorp in his bio on the Mars One website. “Who wouldn’t be compelled to watch, talk about, get involved in the biggest undertaking mankind has ever made? The entire world will be able to follow this giant leap from the start; from the very first astronaut selections to the established, independent village years later. The media focus that comes with the public’s attention opens pathways to sponsors and investors.”

As far as the one-way mission (a concept that Universe Today has written about extensively) the Mars One website notes, “this is no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future.”

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The difference between this mission and the one proposed by Jim McLane back in 2008 is that McLane wanted to send just one person to Mars.

However, the Mars One group says that once the first trip is successful and Mars becomes developed, it will be “much easier to build the returning rocket there.”

In a Q&A on reddit, Lansdorp said the biggest challenge will be financing.

“We have estimated, and discussed with our suppliers that it will cost about 6 billion US$ to get the first crew of four people to Mars. We plan to organize the biggest media event ever around our mission. When we launch people to Mars and when they land, the whole world will watch. After that a lot of people will be very interested to see how ‘our people on Mars’ are doing.”

But the big challenge is that the biggest expenditures will be building the equipment before they send people to Mars. “This is why we are building a very strong technical case now. If we can convince sponsors and investors that this will really happen, then we believe that we can convince them to help us finance it,” Lansdorp said.

As far as technologies, Mars One expects to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy as a launch vehicle, a transit vehicle/space habitat built by Thales Alenia Space, a variant on the SpaceX Dragon as the lander, an inflatable habitat built by ILC Dover, a rover vehicle by MDA Space Missions, and Mars spacesuits made by Paragon.

The project website says “no new technologies” will be needed, but does any space agency or company really have a good handle on providing providing ample air, oxygen, energy, food and water for extended (lifetimes?) periods of time? Instead, the website provides more details on FAQ’s like, What will the astronauts do on Mars? Why should we go to Mars? Is it safe to live on Mars? How does the Mars base communicate with Earth? And the Mars One team emphasizes that this can be done with current technology. However, no one really knows how to land large payloads on Mars yet, so at least some development will be required there.

Who will go? Later this year they will begin to take applications and eventually 40 people will take part in a rigid, decade-long training program (which sounds very expensive) where the ‘contestants” will essentially be voted off the island to get to the final four astronauts. The selection and training process will be broadcast via television and online to public, with viewers voting on the final selected four.

It’s an intriguing proposition, but one filled with technological hurdles. I’ve just finished reading Ben Bova’s “Mars,” so I’m also thinking the Mars One folks will need to be on the lookout for micrometeorite swarms.

Mars One website.