Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System


Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.

This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.

This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX.  In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.

At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.

But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.

Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000.  Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.

Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.

If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.

And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.

The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.

One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.

We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.

We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.

We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.

Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.

With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.

But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.

High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.

Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.

It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.

With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.

Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.

So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.

Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.

In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.

One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.

Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.

So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?

The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.

Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.

Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.

Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.

Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.

However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.

But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.

As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.

One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.

Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.

Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.

Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.

By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.

When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.

Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.

The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.

But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.

But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.

Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.

The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.

We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.

One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.

These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.

The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.

And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.

These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.

There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.

Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.

The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.

Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.

Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.

Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.

The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.

That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.

We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.

According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.

Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.

What Is The Interplanetary Transport Network?

What is the Interplanetary Transport Network?

It was with great fanfare that Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System.

I really wish they’d stuck to their original name, the BFR, the Big Fabulous Rocket, or something like that.

The problem is that Interplanetary Transport System is way too close a name to another really cool idea, the Interplanetary Transport Network, which gives you an almost energy free way to travel across the entire Solar System. Assuming you’re not in any kind of rush.

When you imagine rockets blasting off for distant destinations, you probably envision pointing your rocket at your destination, firing the thrusters until you get there. Maybe turning around and slowing down again to land on the alien world. It’s how you might drive your car, or fly a plane to get from here to there.

But if you’ve played any Kerbal Space Program, you know that’s not how it works in space. Instead, it’s all about orbits and velocity. In order to get off planet Earth, you have be travelling about 8 km/s or 28,000 km/h sideways.

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

So now, you’re orbiting the Earth, which is orbiting the Sun. If you want to get to Mars, you have raise your orbit so that it matches Mars. The absolute minimum energy needed to make that transfer is known as the Hohmann transfer orbit. To get to Mars, you need to fire your thrusters until you’re going about 11.3 km/s.

Then you escape the pull of Earth, follow a nice curved trajectory, and intercept the trajectory of Mars. Assuming you timed everything right, that means you intercept Mars and go into orbit, or land on its surface, or discover a portal to hell dug into a research station on Phobos.

If you want to expend more energy, go ahead, you’ll get there faster.

But it turns out there’s another way you can travel from planet to planet in the Solar System, using a fraction of the energy you would use with the traditional Hohmann transfer, and that’s using Lagrange points.

We did a whole article on Lagrange points, but here’s a quick refresher. The Lagrange points are places in the Solar System where the gravity between two objects balances out in five places. There are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Sun, and there are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Moon. And there are points between the Sun and Jupiter, etc.

Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

Three of these points are unstable. Imagine a boulder at the top of a mountain. It doesn’t take much energy to keep it in place, but it’s easy to knock it out of balance so it comes rolling down.

Now, imagine the whole Solar System with all these Lagrange points for all the objects gravitationally interacting with each other. As planets go around the Sun, these Lagrange points get close to each other and even overlap.

And if you time things right, you can ride along in one gravitationally balanced point, and the roll down the gravity hill into the grasp of a different planet. Hang out there for a little bit and then jump orbits to another planet.

In fact, you can use this technique to traverse the entire Solar System, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond, relying only on the interacting gravity of all these worlds to provide you with the velocity you need to make the journey.

Welcome to the Interplanetary Transport Network, or Interplanetary Superhighway.

Unlike a normal highway, though, the actual shape and direction these pathways take changes all the time, depending on the current configuration of the Solar System.

800px-Interplanetary_Superhighway
A stylized example of one of the many, ever-changing routes along the ITN. Credit: NASA

If you think this sounds like science fiction, you’ll be glad to hear that space agencies have already used a version of this network to get some serious science done.

NASA greatly extended the mission of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, using these low energy transfers, it was able to perform its primary mission and then investigate a couple of comets.

The Japanese Hiten spacecraft was supposed to travel to the Moon, but its rocket failed to get enough velocity to put it into the right orbit. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a trajectory that used the Lagrange points to help it move slowly and get to the Moon any way.

NASA’s Genesis Mission used the technique to capture particles from the solar wind and bring them back to the Earth.

There have been other missions to use the technique, and missions have been proposed that might exploit this technique to fully explore all the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, for example. Traveling from moon to moon when the gravity points line up.

It all sounds too good to be true, so here’s the downside. It’s slow. Really, painfully slow.

Like it can take years and even decades to move from world to world.

Imagine in the far future, there are space stations positioned at the major Lagrange points around the planets in the Solar System. Maybe they’re giant rotating space stations, like in 2001, or maybe they’re hollowed out asteroids or comets which have been maneuvered into place.

Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis
Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis

They hang out at the Lagrange points using minimal fuel for station keeping. If you want to travel from one planet to another, you dock your spacecraft at the space station, refuel, and then wait for one of these low-energy trajectories to open up.

Then you just kick away from the Lagrange point, fall into the gravity well of your destination, and you’re on your way.

In the far future, we could have space stations at all the Lagrange points, and slow ferries that move from world to world along low energy trajectories, bringing cargo from world to world. Or taking passengers who can’t afford the high velocity Hohmann transfer technique.

You could imagine the space stations equipped with powerful lasers that fill your ship’s solar sails with the photons it needs to take you to the next destination. But then, I’m a sailor, so maybe I’m overly romanticizing it.

Here’s another, even more mind-bending concept. Astronomers have observed these networks open up between interacting galaxies. Want to transfer from the Milky Way to Andromeda? Just get your spacecraft to the galactic Lagrange point in a few billion years as they pass through each other. With very little energy, you’ll be able to join the cool kids in Andromeda.

I love this idea that colonizing and traveling across the Solar System doesn’t actually need to take enormous amounts of energy. If you’re patient, you can just ride the gravitational currents from world to world. This might be one of the greatest gifts the Solar System has made available to us.

The Orbit of the Moon

Since time immemorial, people have been staring up at the Moon with awe and wonder. For as long as there has been life on this planet, the Moon has been orbiting it. And as time went on, scholars and astronomers began to observe it regularly and calculate its orbit. In so doing, they learned some rather interesting things about its behavior.

For example, the Moon has an orbital period that is the same as its rotational period. In essence, it is tidally locked to the Earth, which means that it always presents the same face to us as it orbits around our planet. And during the course of its orbit, it also appears larger and smaller in the sky, which is due to the fact it is sometimes closer than at other times.

Orbital Parameters:

For starters, the Moon follows an elliptical path around the Earth – with an average eccentricity of 0.0549 – which means that its orbit is not perfectly circular. Its average orbital distance is 384,748 km, which ranges from 364,397 km at its closest, to 406,731 km at its most distant.

Comparison of the Moon's apparent size at lunar perigee–apogee. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tomruen
Comparison of the Moon’s apparent size at lunar perigee–apogee. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tomruen

This non-circular orbit causes variations in the Moon’s angular speed and apparent size as it moves towards and away from an observer on Earth. When it’s full and at its closest point to Earth (perigee), the Moon can look over 10% bigger, and 30% brighter than when it’s at a more distant point in its orbit (apogee).

The mean inclination of the Moon’s orbit to the ecliptic plane (i.e. the apparent path of the Sun through the sky) is 5.145°. Because of this inclination, the moon is above the horizon at the North and South Pole for almost two weeks every month, even though the Sun is below the horizon for six months out of the year.

The Moon’s sidereal orbital period and rotational period are the same – 27.3 days. This phenomena, known as synchronous rotation, is what allows for the same hemisphere to be facing Earth all the time. Hence why the far side is colloquially referred to as the “Dark Side”, but this name is misleading. As the Moon orbits Earth, different parts are in sunlight or darkness at different times and neither side is permanently dark or illuminated.

Because Earth is moving as well – rotating on its axis as it orbits the Sun – the Moon appears to orbit us every 29.53 days. This is known as its synodic period, which is the amount of time it takes for the Moon to reappear in the same place in the sky. During a synodic period, the Moon will go through changes in its appearance, which are known as “phases“.

Lunar Cycle:

These changes in appearance are due to the Moon receiving more or less illumination (from our perspective). A full cycle of these phases is known as a Lunar Cycle, which comes down to the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and our mutual orbit around the Sun. When the Sun, the Moon and Earth are perfectly lined up, the angle between the Sun and the Moon is 0-degrees.

At this point, the side of the Moon facing the Sun is fully illuminated, and the side facing the Earth is enshrouded in darkness. We call this a New Moon. After this, the phase of the Moon changes, because the angle between the Moon and the Sun is increasing from our perspective. A week after a New Moon, and the Moon and Sun are separated by 90-degrees, which effects what we will see.

And then, when the Moon and Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth, they’re at 180-degrees – which corresponds to a Full Moon. The period in which a Moon will go from a New Moon to a Full Moon and back again is also known as “Lunar Month”. One of these lasts 28 days, and encompasses what are known as “waxing” and “waning” Moons. During the former period, the Moon brightens and its angle relative to the Sun and Earth increases.

When the Moon is in between the Earth and the Sun, the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth is fully illuminated, and the side we can see is shrouded in darkness. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the angle between the Moon and the Sun increases. At this point, the angle between the Moon and Sun is 0 degrees, which gradually increases over the next two weeks. This is what astronomers call a waxing moon.

After the first week, the angle between the Moon and the Sun is 90-degrees and continues to increase to 180-degrees, when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. When the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to 0-degrees, astronomers say that it’s a waning moon. In other words, when the Moon is waning, it will have less and less illumination every night until it’s a New Moon.

When the Moon is no longer full, but it hasn’t reached a quarter moon – i.e. when it’s half illuminated from our perspective – we say that it’s a Waning Gibbous Moon. This is the exact reverse of a Waxing Gibbous Moon, when the Moon is increasing in brightness from a New Moon to a Full Moon.

This is followed by a Third Quarter (or last quarter) Moon. During this period, 50% of the Moon’s disc will be illuminated (left side in the northern hemisphere, and the right in the southern), which is the opposite of how it would appear during a First Quarter. These phases are often referred to as a “Half Moon”, since half the disc is illuminated at the time.

Finally, a Waning Crescent is when the Moon appears as a sliver in the night sky, where between 49–1% of one side is illuminated after a Full Moon (again, left in the northern hemisphere, right in the southern). This is the opposite of a Waxing Crescent, when 1-49% of the other wide is illuminated before it reaches a Full Moon.

Future of the Moon’s Orbit:

Currently, the Moon’s is slowly drifting away from the Earth, at a rate of about 1 to 2 cm per year. This is directly related to the fact that here on Earth, the day’s are getting longer – by a rate of 1/500th of a second every century. In fact, astronomers have estimated that roughly 620 million years ago, a day was only 21 hours long, and the Moon was between 6,200 – 12,400 km closer.

Now, the days are 24 hours long and getting longer, and the Moon is already at a average distance of 384,400 km. Eventually, the Earth and the Moon will be tidally locked to each other, so the same side of the Earth will always face the Moon, just like the same side of the Moon always presents the same face to the Earth. But this won’t happen for billions of years from now.

For as long as human beings have been staring up at the night sky, the Moon has been a part of our world. And over the course of the roughly 4.5 billion years that it has been our only natural satellite, the relationship between it and our planet has changed. As time goes on, it will continue to change; but to us, it will still be the Moon.

We’ve written many articles about the Moon for Universe Today. Here’s Interesting Facts About the Moon, What is a Moon?, Is the Moon a Planet?, What is the Diameter of the Moon?, What is the Distance to the Moon?, and Does the Moon Orbit the Sun?.

If you’d like more info on the Moon, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Moon, and here’s a link to NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science page.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Moon. Listen here, Episode 113: The Moon, Part 1.

Sources:

 

What are CubeSats?

One of the defining characteristics of the modern era of space exploration is the open nature of it. In the past, space was a frontier that was accessible only to two federal space agencies – NASA and the Soviet space program. But thanks to the emergence of new technologies and cost-cutting measures, the private sector is now capable of providing their own launch services.

In addition, academic institutions and small countries are now capable of building their own satellites for the purposes of conducting atmospheric research, making observations of Earth, and testing new space technologies. It’s what is known as the CubeSat, a miniaturized satellite that is allowing for cost-effective space research.

Structure and Design:

Also known as nanosatellites, CubeSats are built to standard dimensions of 10 x 10 x 11 cm (1 U) and are shaped like cubes (hence the name). They are scalable, coming in versions that measure 1U, 2Us, 3Us, or 6Us on a side, and typically weigh less than 1.33 kg (3 lbs) per U. CubSats of 3Us or more are the largest, being composed of three units stacked lengthwise with a cylinder encasing them all.

A cubesat structure, 1U in size. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat
A cubesat structure, 1U in size, without the outer skin. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat

In recent years larger CubeSat platforms have been proposed, which include a 12U model (20 x 20 x 30 cm or 24 x 24 x 36 cm), that would extend the capabilities of CubeSats beyond academic research and testing new technologies, incorporating more complex science and national defense goals.

The main reason for miniaturizing satellites is to reduce the cost of deployment, and because they can be deployed in the excess capacity of a launch vehicle. This reduces the risks associated with missions where additional cargo has to be piggybacked to the launcher, and also allows for cargo changes on short notice.

They can also be made using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics components, which makes them comparably easy to create. Since CubeSats missions are often made to very Low Earth Orbits (LEO), and experience atmospheric reentry after just days or weeks, radiation can largely be ignored and standard consumer-grade electronics may be used.

CubeSats are built from four specific types of aluminum alloy to ensure that they have the same coefficient of thermal expansion as the launch vehicle. The satellites are also coated with a protective oxide layer along any surface that comes into contact with the launch vehicle to prevent them from being cold welded into place by extreme stress.

Components:

CubeSats often carry multiple on-board computers for the sake of carrying out research, as well providing for attitude control, thrusters, and communications. Typically, other on-board computers are included to ensure that the main computer is not overburdened by multiple data streams, but all other on-board computers must be capable of interfacing with it.

An example of a 3U cubesat - 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. (Credit: LLNL)
An example of a 3U cubesat – 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. Credit: LLNL

Typically, a primary computer is responsible for delegating tasks to other computers – such as attitude control, calculations for orbital maneuvers, and scheduling tasks. Still, the primary computer may be used for payload-related tasks, like image processing, data analysis, and data compression.

Miniaturized components provide attitude control, usually consisting of reaction wheels, magnetorquers, thrusters, star trackers, Sun and Earth sensors, angular rate sensors, and GPS receivers and antennas. Many of these systems are often used in combination in order to compensate for shortcomings, and to provide levels of redundancy.

Sun and star sensors are used to provide directional pointing, while sensing the Earth and its horizon is essential for conducting Earth and atmospheric studies. Sun sensors are also useful in ensuring that the CubsSat is able to maximize its access to solar energy, which is the primary means of powering a CubeSat – where solar panels are incorporated into the satellites outer casing.

Meanwhile, propulsion can come in a number of forms, all of which involve miniaturized thrusters providing small amounts of specific impulse. Satellites are also subject to radiative heating from the Sun, Earth, and reflected sunlight, not to mention the heat generated by their components.

Will cubesats develop a new technological branch of astronomy? Goddard engineers are taking the necessary steps to make cubesat sized telescopes a reality. (Credit: NASA, UniverseToday/TRR)
Will cubesats develop a new technological branch of astronomy? Goddard engineers are taking the necessary steps to make cubesat sized telescopes a reality. (Credit: NASA, UniverseToday/TRR)

As such, CubeSat’s also come with insulation layers and heaters to ensure that their components do not exceed their temperature ranges, and that excess heat can be dissipated. Temperature sensors are often included to monitor for dangerous temperature increases or drops.

For communications, CubeSat’s can rely on antennae that work in the VHF, UHF, or L-, S-, C- and X-bands. These are mostly limited to 2W of power due to the CubeSat’s small size and limited capacity. They can be helical, dipole, or monodirection monopole antennas, though more sophisticated models are being developed.

Propulsion:

CubeSats rely on many different methods of propulsion, which has in turn led to advancements in many technologies. The most common methods includes cold gas, chemical, electrical propulsion, and solar sails. A cold gas thruster relies on inert gas (like nitrogen) which is stored in a tank and released through a nozzle to generate thrust.

As propulsion methods go, it is the simplest and most useful system a CubeSat can use. It is also one of the safest too, since most cold gases are neither volatile nor corrosive. However, they have limited performance and cannot achieve high impulse maneuvers. Hence why they are generally used in attitude control systems, and not as main thrusters.

This prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster was tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and will be used by industry to develop high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system. Credits: NASA
Miniaturized ion engines are a method of choice for providing thrust control for CubeSats. Credits: NASA

Chemical propulsion systems rely on chemical reactions to produce high-pressure, high-temperature gas which is then directed through a nozzle to create thrust. They can be liquid, solid, or a hybrid, and usually come down to the combination of chemicals combined with a catalysts or an oxidizer. These thrusters are simple (and can therefore be miniaturized easily), have low power requirements, and are very reliable.

Electric propulsion relies on electrical energy to accelerate charged particles to high speeds – aka. Hall-effect thrusters, ion thrusters, pulsed plasma thrusters, etc. This method is beneficial since it combines high specific-impulse with high-efficiency, and the components can be easily miniaturized. A disadvantage is that they require additional power, which means either larger solar cells, larger batteries, and more complex power systems.

Solar sails are also used as a method for propulsion, which is beneficial because it requires no propellant. Solar sails can also be scaled to the CubSat’s own dimensions, and the satellite’s small mass results in the greater acceleration for a given solar sail’s area.

However, solar sails still need to be quite large compared to the satellite, which makes mechanical complexity an added source of potential failure. At this time, few CubeSats have employed a solar sail, but it remains an area of potential development since it is the only method that needs no propellant or involves hazardous materials.

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. Credit: Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society.
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 is one of the few concepts where a CubeSat relied on a solar sail. Credit: Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society.

Because the thrusters are miniaturized, they create several technical challenges and limitations. For instance, thrust vectoring (i.e. gimbals) is impossible with smaller thrusters. As such, vectoring must instead be achieved by using multiple nozzles to thrust asymmetrically or using actuated components to change the center of mass relative to the CubeSat’s geometry.

History:

Beginning in 1999, California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University developed  the CubeSat specifications to help universities worldwide to perform space science and exploration. The term “CubeSat” was coined to denote nano-satellites that adhere to the standards described in the CubeSat design specifications.

These were laid out by aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, from the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Stanford University. It has since grown to become an international partnership of over 40 institutes that are developing nano-satellites containing scientific payloads.

Initially, despite their small size, academic institutions were limited in that they were forced to wait, sometimes years, for a launch opportunity. This was remedied to an extent by the development of the Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (otherwise known as the P-POD), by California Polytechnic. P-PODs are mounted to a launch vehicle and carry CubeSats into orbit and deploy them once the proper signal is received from the launch vehicle.

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. The BisonSat is an Earth science mission that will demonstrate the acquisition of 100-meter or better resolution visible light imagery of Earth using passive magnetic stabilization from a CubeSat. The science data, 69-by-52 kilometer color images with a resolution of 43 meters per pixel, a few of which will be images of the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, will be used primarily for engaging tribal college students and tribal communities in NASA’s mission. BisonSat is the first CubeSat designed, built, tested, and operated by tribal college students. Credits: Salish Kootenai College
The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credits: Salish Kootenai College

The purpose of this, according to JordiPuig-Suari, was “to reduce the satellite development time to the time frame of a college student’s career and leverage launch opportunities with a large number of satellites.” In short, P-PODs ensure that many CubeSats can be launched at any given time.

Several companies have built CubeSats, including large-satellite-maker Boeing. However, the majority of development comes from academia, with a mixed record of successfully orbited CubeSats and failed missions. Since their inception, CubeSats have been used for countless applications.

For example, they have been used to deploy Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to monitor marine vessels, deploy Earth remote sensors, to test the long term viability of space tethers, as well as conducting biological and radiological experiments.

Within the academic and scientific community, these results are shared and resources are made available by communicating directly with other developers and attending CubeSat workshops. In addition, the CubeSat program benefits private firms and governments by providing a low-cost way of flying payloads in space.

An artist's rendering of MarCO A and B during the descent of InSight. NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist’s rendering of MarCO A and B during the descent of InSight. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2010, NASA created the “CubeSat Launch Initiative“, which aims to provide launch services for educational institutions and non-profit organizations so they can get their CubeSats into space. In 2015, NASA initiated its Cube Quest Challenge as part of their Centennial Challenges Programs.

With a prize purse of $5 million, this incentive-competition aimed to foster the creation of small satellites capable of operating beyond low Earth orbit – specifically in lunar orbit or deep space. At the end of the competition, up to three teams will be selected to launch their CubeSat design aboard the SLS-EM1 mission in 2018.

NASA’s InSight lander mission (scheduled to launch in 2018), will also include two CubeSats. These will conduct a flyby of Mars and provide additional relay communications to Earth during the lander’s entry and landing.

Designated Mars Cube One (MarCO), this experimental 6U-sized CubeSat will will be the first deep-space mission to rely on CubeSat technology. It will use a high-gain, flat-paneled X-band antenna to transmit data to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – which will then relay it to Earth.

Engineers for NASA's MarCO technology demonstration check out a full-scale mechanical mock-up of the small craft in development as part of NASA's next mission to Mars. Mechanical engineer Joel Steinkraus and systems engineer Farah Alibay are on the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA engineers Joel Steinkraus and Farah Alibay demonstrate a full-scale mechanical mock-up of a MarCo CubeSat. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Making space systems smaller and more affordable is one of the hallmarks of the era of renewed space exploration. It’s also one of the main reasons the NewSpace industry has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. And with greater levels of participation, we are seeing greater returns when it comes to research, development and exploration.

We have written many articles about CubeSat for Universe Today. Here’s Planetary Society to Launch Three Separate Solar Sails, First Interplanetary CubeSats to Launch on NASA’s 2016 InSight Mars Lander, Making CubeSats do Astronomy, What Can You Do With a Cubesat?, These Cubesats Could Use Plasma Thrusters to Leave Our Solar System.

If you’d like more info on the CubeSat, check out CubeSat’s official homepage.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Space Shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

Sources:

How High is Space?

The edge of space. Credit: NASA

Look up at the night sky, and what do you see? Space, glittering and gleaming in all its glory. Astronomically speaking, space is really quite close, lingering just on the other side of that thin layer we call an atmosphere. And if you think about it, Earth is little more than a tiny island in a sea of space. So it is quite literally all around us.

By definition, space is defined as being the point at which the Earth’s atmosphere ends, and the vacuum of space begins. But exactly how far away is that? How high do you need to travel before you can actually touch space? As you can probably imagine, with such a subjective definition, people tend to disagree on exactly where space begins.

Definition:

The first official definition of space came from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor to NASA), who decided on the point where atmospheric pressure was less than one pound per square foot. This was the altitude that airplane control surfaces could no longer be used, and corresponded to roughly 81 kilometers (50 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

The Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager “broke” the sound barrier in 1947. Credit: NASA
The Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager “broke” the sound barrier in 1947. Credit: NASA

Any NASA test pilot or astronaut who crosses this altitude is awarded their astronaut wings. Shortly after that definition was passed, the aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán calculated that above an altitude of 100 km, the atmosphere would be so thin that an aircraft would need to be traveling at orbital velocity to derive any lift.

This altitude was later adopted as the Karman Line by the World Air Sports Federation (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, FAI). And in 2012, when Felix Baumgartner broke the record for the highest freefall, he jumped from an altitude of 39 kilometers (24.23 mi), less than halfway to space (according to NASA’s definition).

By the same token, space is often defined as beginning at the lowest altitude at which satellites can maintain orbits for a reasonable time – which is approximately 160 kilometers (100 miles) above the surface. These varying definitions are complicated when one takes the definition of the word “atmosphere” into account.

Earth’s Atmosphere:

When we talk about Earth’s atmosphere, we tend to think of the region where air pressure is still high enough to cause air resistance, or where the air is simply thick enough to breath. But in truth, Earth’s atmosphere is made up of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere – the latter of which extend pretty far out into space.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavor silhouetted against Earth’s atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
The Thermosphere, the second highest layer of the atmosphere, extends from an altitude of about 80 km (50 mi) up to the thermopause, which is at an altitude of 500–1000 km (310–620 mi). The lower part of the thermosphere, – from 80 to 550 kilometers (50 to 342 mi) – contains the ionosphere, which is so named because it is here in the atmosphere that particles are ionized by solar radiation.

Hence, this is where the phenomena known as Aurora Borealis and Aurara Australis are known to take place. The International Space Station also orbits in this layer, between 320 and 380 km (200 and 240 mi), and needs to be constantly boosted because friction with the atmosphere still occurs.

The outermost layer, known as the exosphere, extends out to an altitude of 10,000 km (6214 mi) above the planet. This layer is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules (nitrogen, oxygen, CO²). The atoms and molecules are so far apart that the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas and the particles constantly escape into space.

It is here that Earth’s atmosphere truly merges with the emptiness of outer space, where there is no atmosphere. Hence why the majority of Earth’s satellites orbit within this region. Sometimes, the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis occur in the lower part of the exosphere, where they overlap into the thermosphere. But beyond that, there is no meteorological phenomena in this region.

Interplanetary vs. Interstellar:

Another important distinction when discussing space is the difference between that which lies between planets (interplanetary space) and that which lies between star systems (interstellar space) in our galaxy. But of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to space.

If one were to cast the net wider, there is also the space which lies between galaxies in the Universe (intergalactic space). In all cases, the definition involves regions where the concentration of matter is significantly lower than in other places – i.e. a region occupied centrally by a planet, star or galaxy.

In addition, in all three definitions, the measurements involved are beyond anything that we humans are accustomed to dealing with on a regular basis. Some scientists believe that space extends infinitely in all directions, while others believe that space is finite, but is unbounded and continuous (i.e. has no beginning and end).

In other words, there’s a reason they call it space – there’s just so much of it!

Exploration:

The exploration of space (that is to say, that which lies immediately beyond Earth’s atmosphere) began in earnest with what is known as the “Space Age“, This newfound age of exploration began with the United States and Soviet Union setting their sights on placing satellites and crewed modules into orbit.

The first major event of the Space Age took place on October 4th, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union – the first artificial satellite to be launched into orbit. In response, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29th, 1958, officially establishing NASA.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A.

Immediately, NASA and the Soviet space program began taking the necessary steps towards creating manned spacecraft. By 1959, this competition resulted in the creation of the Soviet Vostok program and NASA’s Project Mercury. In the case of Vostok, this consisted of developing a space capsule that could be launched aboard an expendable carrier rocket.

Along with numerous unmanned tests, and a few using dogs, six Soviet pilots were selected by 1960 to be the first men to go into space. On April 12th, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and thus became the fist man to go into space (beating American Alan Shepard by just a few weeks).

On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was sent into orbit aboard the Vostok 6 craft (which was the final Vostok mission), and thus became the first woman to go into space. Meanwhile, NASA took over Project Mercury from the US Air Force and began developing their own crewed mission concept.

Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti
Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti

Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept of launching ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.

On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. Then, on February 20th, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits of planet Earth, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.

In the ensuing decades, both NASA and Soviets began to develop more complex, long-range crewed spacecraft. Once the “Race to the Moon” ended with the successful landing of Apollo 11 (followed by several more Apollo missions), the focus began to shift to establishing a permanent presence in space.

For the Russians, this led to the continued development of space station technology as part of the Salyut program. Between 1972 and 1991, they attempted to orbit seven separate stations. However, technical failures and a failure in one rocket’s second stage boosters caused the first three attempts after Salyut 1 to fail or result in the station’s orbits decaying after a short period.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

However, by 1974, the Russians managed to successfully deploy Salyut 4, followed by three more stations that would remain in orbit for periods of between one and nine years. While all of the Salyuts were presented to the public as non-military scientific laboratories, some of them were actually covers for the military Almaz reconnaissance stations.

NASA also pursued the development of space station technology, which culminated in May of 1973 with the launch of Skylab, which would remain America’s first and only independently-built space station. During deployment, Skylab suffered severe damage, losing its thermal protection and one of its solar panels.

This required the first crew to rendezvous with the station and conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.

By 1986, the Soviets once again took the lead in the creation of space stations with the deployment of Mir. Authorized in February 1976 by a government decree, the station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations. In time, it evolved into a station consisting of multiple modules and several ports for crewed Soyuz spacecraft and Progress cargo spaceships.

The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA's STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA
The Mir Space Station and Earth limb observed from the Orbiter Endeavour during NASA’s STS-89 mission in 1998. Credit: NASA

The core module was launched into orbit on February 19th, 1986; and between 1987 and 1996, all of the other modules would be deployed and attached. During its 15-years of service, Mir was visited by a total of 28 long-duration crews. Through a series of collaborative programs with other nations, the station would also be visited by crews from other Eastern Bloc nations, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA.

After a series of technical and structural problems caught up with the station, the Russian government announced in 2000 that it would decommission the space station. This began on Jan. 24th, 2001, when a Russian Progress cargo ship docked with the station and pushed it out of orbit. The station then entered the atmosphere and crashed into the South Pacific.

By 1993, NASA began collaborating with the Russians, the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create the International Space Station (ISS). Combining NASA’s Space Station Freedom project with the Soviet/Russian Mir-2 station, the European Columbus station, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, the project also built on the Russian-American Shuttle-Mir missions (1995-1998).

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members have been delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft in recent years. Since 2014, cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos has been suspended for most non-ISS activities due to tensions caused by the situation in the Ukraine.

However, in the past few years, indigenous launch capability has been restored to the US thanks to companies like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin stepping in to fill the void with their private fleet of rockets.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.

As you can clearly see, where our atmosphere ends and space begins is the subject of some debate. But thanks to decades of space exploration and launches, we have managed to come up with a working definition. But whatever the exact definition is, if you can get above 100 kilometers, you have definitely earned your astronaut wings!

We have written many interesting articles about space here at Universe Today. Here is Why is Space Black?, How Cold is Space?, Space Debris Illustrated: The Problem in Pictures, What is Interplanetary Space?, What is Interstellar Space?, and What is Intergalactic Space?

For more information, check out NASA Reveals Mysteries of Interstellar Space and this list of Deep Space Missions.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on the subject, like the Space Stations Series, Episode 82: Space Junk, Episode 281: Explosions in Space, Episode 303: Equilibrium in Space, and Episode 311: Sound in Space.

Sources:

What if Earth Stopped Orbiting the Sun?

In a previous article I investigated what would happen if the Earth stopped turning entirely, either locking to the Sun or the background stars.

If it happened quickly, then results would be catastrophic, turning the whole planet into a blended slurry of mountains, oceans and trees, hurting past a hundreds of kilometers per hour. And if it happened slowly, it would still be unpleasant, as we stopped having a proper day/night cycle. But it wouldn’t be immediately lethal.

But would happen if the Earth somehow just stopped in its tracks as it was orbiting the Sun, as if it ran into an invisible wall? As with the Earth turning question, it’s completely and totally impossible; it’s not going to happen. And with the unspun Earth, it would be totally devastating and super interesting to imagine.

A view of Earth on October 24, 2014 from the Chinese Chang’e-5 T1 spacecraft. Credit: Xinhua News, via UnmannedSpaceflight.com.
Credit: Xinhua News, via UnmannedSpaceflight.com.

Before we begin to imagine the horrifying consequences of a total loss of orbital velocity, let’s examine the physics involved.

The Earth is traveling around the Sun with an orbital velocity of 30 kilometers per second. This is exactly the speed it needs to be going to counteract the force of gravity from the Sun pulling it inward. If the Sun were to suddenly disappear, Earth would travel in a perfectly straight line at 30 km/s. This is how orbits work.

If the Earth’s orbital velocity sped up, then it would go into a higher orbit to compensate. And if the Earth’s orbital velocity slowed down, then it fall into a lower orbit to compensate. And if the Earth’s orbital velocity was slowed all the way down to zero? Now we’re cooking, literally.

First, let’s imagine what would happen if the Earth just suddenly stopped.

As I mentioned above, the Earth’s orbital velocity is 30 km/s, which means that if it suddenly stopped, everything on it would still have 30 km/s worth of inertia. The escape velocity of the Earth is about 11 km/s.

In other words, anything on the Earth’s leading side would fly off into space, continuing along the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun. Anything on the trailing side would be pulverized against the Earth. It would be a horrible, gooey mess.

But even if the Earth slowed gently to a stop, it would still be a horrible mess. Without the outward centripetal force to counteract the inward pull of gravity, the Earth would begin falling towards the Sun.

How long would it take? My integral calculus is a little rusty, so I’ll draw upon the calculations of Dave Rothstein from Cornell’s Ask an Astronomer. According to Dr. Rothstein, the whole journey would take about 65 days. It would take 41 days to cross the orbit of Venus, and on day 57, we’d cross the orbit of Mercury.

As they days went by, the Earth would get hotter and hotter as it got closer to the Sun. Aatish Bhatia over at WIRED did some further calculations to figure out the temperature. A month into the freefall, and the average temperature on Earth would have risen to 50 degrees C. 50 days in and we’d be about 125 C. On the final day, we’d get up to 3,000 C… and then, that would be that.

Of course, this is completely and totally impossible. There’s no force that could just stop the Earth in its tracks like that. There is, however, a plausible scenario that might drag the Earth into the Sun.

In the far future, the Sun will turn into a red giant and expand outward, engulfing the orbits of Mercury and Venus. There’s still an argument among astronomers on whether it’s going to gobble up Earth as well.

Illustration of the red supergiant Betelgeuse, as seen from a fictional orbiting world. © Digital Drew.
Poor Earth. © Digital Drew.

Let’s say it does. In that case, the Earth will be inside the atmosphere of the Sun, and experience a friction from the solar material as it orbits around, and spiral inward. Of course, at this point you’re orbiting inside the Sun, so falling into the Sun already happened.

There you go. If the Earth happened to stop dead in its orbit, it would take about 65 days to plunge down into the Sun, disappearing in a puff of plasma.

How Long Does it Take Mars to Orbit the Sun?

Given it’s similarities to Earth, Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin”. Like Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed largely of silicate rock and minerals that are differentiated into a core, mantle and crust. It is also located within the Sun’s “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. habitable zone), has polar ice caps, and once had flowing water on its surface. But beyond these, Mars and Earth are very different worlds.

In addition to their stark contrasts in temperature, surface conditions, and exposure to harmful radiation, Mars also takes a significantly longer time to complete a single orbit of the Sun. In fact, a year on Mars is almost twice as long as a year here on Earth – lasting 686.971 days, which works out to about 1.88 Earth years. And in the course of that orbit, the planet undergoes some rather interesting changes.

Continue reading “How Long Does it Take Mars to Orbit the Sun?”

How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?

Virtually every planet in the Solar System has moons. Earth has The Moon, Mars has Phobos and Deimos, and Jupiter and Saturn have 67 and 62 officially named moons, respectively. Heck, even the recently-demoted dwarf planet Pluto has five confirmed moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. And even asteroids like 243 Ida may have satellites orbiting them (in this case, Dactyl). But what about Mercury?

If moons are such a common feature in the Solar System, why is it that Mercury has none? Yes, if one were to ask how many satellites the planet closest to our Sun has, that would be the short answer. But answering it more thoroughly requires that we examine the process through which other planets acquired their moons, and seeing how these apply (or fail to apply) to Mercury.

Continue reading “How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?”

August Full Moon Anticipates September’s Total Lunar Eclipse

Who doesn’t love a Full Moon? Occurring about once a month, they never wear out their welcome. Each one becomes a special event to anticipate. In the summer months, when the Moon rises through the sultry haze, atmosphere and aerosols scatter away so much blue light and green light from its disk, the Moon glows an enticing orange or red.

At Full Moon, we’re also more likely to notice how the denser atmosphere near the horizon squeezes the lunar disk into a crazy hamburger bun shape. It’s caused by atmospheric refraction.  Air closest to the horizon refracts more strongly than air near the top edge of the Moon, in effect “lifting” the bottom of the Moon up into the top. Squished light! We also get to see all the nearside maria or “seas” at full phase, while rayed craters like Tycho and Copernicus come into their full glory, looking for all the world like giant spatters of white paint even to the naked eye.

At full phase, the Moon lies directly opposite the Sun on the other side of Earth. Sunlight hits the Moon square on and fully illuminates the Earth-facing hemisphere. Credit: Bob King
At full phase, the Moon lies directly opposite the Sun on the other side of Earth. Sunlight hits the Moon square on and fully illuminates the Earth-facing hemisphere. Credit: Bob King

Tomorrow night (August 29), the Full Sturgeon Moon rises around sunset across the world. The name comes from the association Great Lakes Indian groups made between the August moon and the best time to catch sturgeon. Next month’s moon is the familiar Harvest Moon; the additional light it provided at this important time of year allowed farmers to harvest into the night.

A Full Moon lies opposite the Sun in the sky exactly like a planet at opposition. Earth is stuck directly between the two orbs. As we look to the west  to watch the Sun go down, the Moon creeps up at our back from the eastern horizon. Full Moon is the only time the Moon faces Sun directly – not off to one side or another – as seen from Earth, so the entire disk is illuminated.

The moon provides the perfect backdrop for watching birds migrate at night. Observers with spotting scopes and small telescopes can watch the show anytime the moon is at or near full. Photo illustration: Bob King
The moon provides the perfect backdrop for watching birds migrate at night. Although a small telescope is best, you might see an occasional bird in binoculars, too. Credit: Bob King

If you’re a moonrise watcher like I am, you’ll want to find a place where you can see all the way down to the eastern horizon tomorrow night. You’ll also need the time of moonrise for your city and a pair of binoculars. Sure, you can watch a moonrise without optical aid perfectly well, but you’ll miss all the cool distortions happening across the lunar disk from air turbulence. Birds have also begun their annual migration south. Don’t be surprised if your glass also shows an occasional winged silhouette zipping over those lunar seas.

Because the Moon's orbit is tilted 5.1 degrees with respect to Earth's, it normally passes above or below Earth's shadow with no eclipse. Only when the lineup is exact, does the Moon then pass directly behind Earth and into its shadow. Credit: Bob King
Because the Moon’s orbit is tilted 5.1° with respect to Earth’s, it normally passes above or below Earth’s shadow with no eclipse — either lunar or solar. Only when the lineup is exact, does the Moon pass directly behind Earth and into its shadow. Credit: Bob King

Next month’s Full Moon is very special. A few times a year, the alignment of Sun, Earth and Moon (in that order) is precise, and the Full Moon dives into Earth’s shadow in total eclipse. That will happen overnight Sunday night-Monday morning September 27-28. This will be the final in the current tetrad of four total lunar eclipses, each spaced about six months apart from the other. I think this one will be the best of the bunch. Why?

The totally eclipsed moon on April 15, 2014 from Duluth, Minn. This was the first in the series of four eclipses called a tetrad. Some refer to this lunar eclipse as a “Blood Moon” because it coincides with the Jewish Passover. Credit: Bob King
The totally eclipsed moon on April 15, 2014 from Duluth, Minn. This was the first in the series of four eclipses called a tetrad. September’s totally eclipsed Moon will appear similar. The coloring comes from sunlight grazing the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and refracted by it into the planet’s shadow. Credit: Bob King
  • Convenient evening viewing hours (CDT times given) for observers in the Americas. Partial eclipse begins at 8:07 p.m., totality lasts from 9:11 – 10:23 p.m. and partial eclipse ends at 11:27 p.m. Those times mean that for many regions, kids can stay up and watch.
  • The Moon passes more centrally through Earth’s shadow than during the last total eclipse. That means a longer totality and possibly more striking color contrasts.
  • September’s will be the last total eclipse visible in the Americas until January 31, 2018. Between now and then, there will be a total of four minor penumbral eclipses and one small partial. Slim pickings.
Diagram showing the details of the upcoming total lunar eclipse. The event begins when the Moon treads into Earth's outer shadow (penumbra) at 7:12 p.m. CDT. Partial phases start at 8:07 and totality at 9:11. Credit: NASA / Fred Espenak
Diagram showing the details of the upcoming total lunar eclipse. The event begins when the Moon treads into Earth’s outer shadow (penumbra) at 7:12 p.m. CDT. Partial phases start at 8:07 and totality at 9:11. Credit: NASA / Fred Espenak

Not only will the Americas enjoy a spectacle, but totality will also be visible from Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. For eastern hemisphere skywatchers, the event will occur during early morning hours of September 28. Universal or UT times for the eclipse are as follows: Partial phase begin at 1:07 a.m., totality from 2:11 – 3:23 a.m. with the end of partial phase at 4:27 a.m.

Eclipse visibility map. Credit: NASA / Fred Espenak
September 27-28, 2015 eclipse visibility map. Credit: NASA / Fred Espenak

We’ll have much more coverage on the upcoming eclipse in future articles here at Universe Today. I hope this brief look will serve to whet your appetite and help you anticipate what promises to be one of the best astronomical events of 2015.

This is Our Planet From a Million Miles Away

This picture of our home planet truly is EPIC – literally! The full-globe image was acquired with NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (aka EPIC; see what they did there) on board NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft, positioned nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) away at L1.

L1 is one of five Lagrange points that exist in space where the gravitational pull between Earth and the Sun are sort of canceled out, allowing spacecraft to be “parked” there. (Learn more about Lagrange points here.) Launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived at L1 on June 8 and, after a series of instrument checks, captured the image of Earth’s western hemisphere above on July 6.

The EPIC instrument has the capability to capture images in ten narrowband channels from infrared to ultraviolet; the true-color picture above was made from images acquired in red, green, and blue visible-light wavelengths.

More than just a pretty picture of our blue marble, this image will be used by the EPIC team to help calibrate the instrument to remove some of the blue atmospheric haze from subsequent images. Once the camera is fully set to begin operations daily images of our planet will be made available on a dedicated web site starting in September.

DSCOVR's location at L1 (NOAA/NASA)
DSCOVR’s location at L1 (NOAA/NASA)

Designed to provide early warnings of potentially-disruptive geomagnetic storms resulting from solar outbursts, DSCOVR also carries Earth-observing instruments that will monitor ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere and measure the amount of energy received, reflected, and emitted by Earth – the planet’s “energy budget.

But also, from its permanent location a million miles away, DSCOVR will be able to get some truly beautiful – er, EPIC – images of our world.

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Learn more about DSCOVR here.

Source: NASA

UPDATE: President Obama liked this image so much, he decided to Tweet about it with a message of planetary conservation!

The POTUS' Tweet about the DSCOVR image on July 20, 2015.
The POTUS’ Tweet about the DSCOVR image on July 20, 2015.

UPDATE 7/29/15: Here’s another view from DSCOVR on July 6, showing Europe, Africa, and the Middle East:

DSCOVR image of Earth from July 6, 2015. (NASA/NOAA)
DSCOVR image of Earth from July 6, 2015. (NASA/NOAA)