Weekly Space Hangout: April 25, 2018: Carolyn Collins Petersen discusses “Space Exploration: Past, Present, Future”

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

Special Guests:
Carolyn Collins Petersen is no stranger to the Weekly Space Hangout, having been a regular journalist during previous seasons. We are excited to welcome Carolyn back to the show this week, this time as our Special Guest, to discuss her newest book, Space Exploration: Past, Present, Future, which was released in the US on April 1. In it, Carolyn discusses the earliest space pioneers and their work, the WW1 technological advances which formed the basis of today’s Space Age, the increasing corporate interest in space, and theorizes about what the future may hold.

You can learn more about/order Carolyn’s latest book here:
https://www.amazon.com/Space-Exploration-Past-Present-Future/dp/1445656035

Announcements:
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Astronomy Cast Ep. 469: Best Modern Sci Fi for the Science Lover – Part 1 Space Exploration

We’ve always been fans of science fiction, but we really like our science. Today we’ll talk about some books we’ve been reading recently that do a good job of dealing with the science in science fiction.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 3:00 pm EST / 12:00 pm PST / 20:00 PM UTC. You can watch us live on AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

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Is Time To Go Back to Uranus and Neptune? Revisiting Ice Giants of the Solar System

We've Got To Go Back!


I look forward to all the future missions that NASA is going to be sending out in the Solar System. Here, check this out. You can use NASA’s website to show you all the future missions. Here’s everything planned for the future, here’s everything going to Mars.

Now, let’s look and see what missions are planned for the outer planets of the Solar System, especially Uranus and Neptune. Oh, that’s so sad… there’s nothing.

Uranus, seen by Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL

It’s been decades since humanity had an up close look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, it was Voyager 2, which swept through the system in 1986. We got just a few tantalizing photographs of the ice giant planet and it’s moons.

Mosaic of the four highest-resolution images of Ariel taken by the Voyager 2 space probe during its 1986 flyby of Uranus. Credit: NASA/JPL

What’s that?

Oberon, as imaged by the Voyager 2 probe during its flyby on Jan. 24, 1986. Credit: NASA

What’s going on there?

Color composite of the Uranian satellite Miranda, taken by Voyager 2 on Jan. 24, 1986, from a distance of 147,000 km (91,000 mi). Credit: NASA/JPL

What are those strange features? Sorry, insufficient data.

And then Voyager 2 did the same, zipping past Neptune in 1989.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

Check this out.

Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

What’s going here on Triton? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Well, too bad! You can’t it’s done, that’s all you get.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve studied all these other worlds. I’m glad we’ve had orbiters at Mercury, Venus, everything at Mars, Jupiter, and especially Saturn. We’ve seen Ceres and Vesta, and the Moon up close. We even got a flyby of Pluto and Charon.

It’s time to go back to Uranus and Neptune, this time to stay.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Scientists at NASA recently published a report called the Ice Giant Mission Study, and it’s all about various missions that could be sent to explore Uranus, Neptune and their fascinating moons.

The team of scientists who worked on the study considered a range of potential missions to the ice giants, and in the end settled on four potential missions; three that could go to Uranus, and one headed for Neptune. Each of them would cost roughly $2 billion.

Uranus is closer, easier to get to, and the obvious first destination of a targeted mission. For Uranus, NASA considered three probes.

The first idea is a flyby mission, which will sweep past Uranus gathering as much science as it can. This is what Voyager 2 did, and more recently what NASA’s New Horizons did at Pluto. In addition, it would have a separate probe, like the Cassini and Galileo missions, that would detach and go into the atmosphere to sample the composition below the cloudtops. The mission would be heavy and require an Atlas V rocket with the same configuration that sent Curiosity to Mars. The flight time would take 10 years.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover blasts off for Mars atop a stunningly beautiful Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The main science goal of this mission would be to study the composition of Uranus. It would make some other measurements of the system as it passed through, but it would just be a glimpse. Better than Voyager, but nothing like Cassini’s decade plus observations of Saturn.

I like where this is going, but I’m going to hold out for something better.

The next idea is an orbiter. Now we’re talking! It would have all the same instruments as the flyby and the detachable probe. But because it would be an orbiter, it would require much more propellant. It would have triple the launch mass of the flyby mission, which means a heavier Atlas V rocket. And a slightly longer flight time; 12 years instead of 10 for the flyby.

Because it would remain at Uranus for at least 3 years, it would be able to do an extensive analysis of the planet and its rings and moons. But because of the atmospheric probe, it wouldn’t have enough mass for more instruments. It would have more time at Uranus, but not a much better set of tools to study it with.

Okay, let’s keep going. The next idea is an orbiter, but without the detachable probe. Instead, it’ll have the full suite of 15 scientific instruments, to study Uranus from every angle. We’re talking visible, doppler, infrared, ultraviolet, thermal, dust, and a fancy wide angle camera to give us those sweet planetary pictures we like to see.

Study Uranus? Yes please. But while we’re at it, let’s also sent a spacecraft to Neptune.

The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. The image spans 26 exposures combined into a equivalent 95 minute exposure, and the ring trace and an image of the occulted planet Neptune is added for reference. (Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute).

As part of the Ice Giants Study, the researchers looked at what kind of missions would be possible. In this case, they settled on a single recommended mission. A huge orbiter with an additional atmospheric probe. This mission would be almost twice as massive as the heaviest Uranus mission, so it would need a Delta IV Heavy rocket to even get out to Neptune.

As it approached Neptune, the mission would release an atmospheric probe to descend beneath the cloudtops and sample what’s down there. The orbiter would then spend an additional 2 years in the environment of Neptune, studying the planet and its moons and rings. It would give us a chance to see its fascinating moon Triton up close, which seems to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect grand tour trajectory available to us any more, where a single spacecraft could visit all the large planets in the Solar System. Missions to Uranus and Neptune will have to be separate, however, if NASA’s Space Launch System gets going, it could carry probes for both destinations and launch them together.

The goal of these missions is the science. We want to understand the ice giants of the outer Solar System, which are quite different from both the inner terrestrial planets and the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.

The Solar System. Credit: NASA

The gas giants are mostly hydrogen and helium, like the Sun. But the ice giants are 65% water and other ices made from methane and ammonia. But it’s not like they’re big blobs of water, or even frozen water. Because of their huge gravity, the ice giants crush this material with enormous pressure and temperature.

What happens when you crush water under this much pressure? It would all depend on the temperature and pressure. There could be different types of ice down there. At one level, it could be an electrically conductive soup of hydrogen and oxygen, and then further down, you might get crystallized oxygen with hydrogen ions running through it.

Hailstones made of diamond could form out of the carbon-rich methane and fall down through the layers of the planets, settling within a molten carbon core. What I’m saying is, it could be pretty strange down there.

We know that ice giants are common in the galaxy, in fact, they’ve made up the majority of the extrasolar planets discovered so far. By better understanding the ones we have right here in our own Solar System, we can get a sense of the distant extrasolar planets turning up. We’ll be better able to distinguish between the super earths and mini-neptunes.

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way’s 100 billion exoplanets. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

Another big question is how these planets formed in the first place. In their current models, most planetary astronomers think these planets had very short time windows to form. They needed to have massive enough cores to scoop up all that material before the newly forming Sun’s solar wind blasted it all out into space. And yet, why are these kinds of planets so common in the Universe?

The NASA mission planners developed a total of 12 science objectives for these missions, focusing on the composition of the planets and their atmospheres. And if there’s time, they’d like to know about how heat moves around, their constellations of rings and moons. They’d especially like to investigate Neptune’s moons Triton, which looks like a captured Kuiper Belt Object, as it orbits in the reverse direction from all the other moons in the Solar System.

In terms of science, the two worlds are very similar. But because Neptune has Triton. If I had to choose, I’d go with a Neptune mission.

Neptune and its large moon Triton as seen by Voyager 2 on August 28th, 1989. (Credit: NASA).

Are you excited? I’m excited. Here’s the bad news. According to NASA, the best launch windows for these missions would be 2029 or 2034. And that’s just the launch time, the flight time is an additional decade or more on top of that. In other words, the first photos from a Uranus flyby could happen in 2039 or 2035, while orbiters could arrive at either planet in the 2040s. I’m sure my future grandchildren will enjoy watching these missions arrive.

But then, we have to keep everything in perspective. NASA’s Cassini mission was under development in the 1980s. It didn’t launch until 1997, and it didn’t get to Saturn until 2004. It’s been almost 20 years since that launch, and almost 40 years since they started working on it.

I guess we need to be more patient. I can be patient.

Is Human Hibernation Possible? Going to Sleep for Long Duration Spaceflight

Sleeping for Centuries?

We’ve spent a few articles on Universe Today talking about just how difficult it’s going to be to travel to other stars. Sending tiny unmanned probes across the vast gulfs between stars is still mostly science fiction. But to send humans on that journey? That’s just a level of technology beyond comprehension.

For example, the nearest star is Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.25 light years away. Just for comparison, the Voyager spacecraft, the most distant human objects ever built by humans, would need about 50,000 years to make that journey.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t anticipate living 50,000 years. No, we’re going to want to make the journey more quickly. But the problem, of course, is that going more quickly requires more energy, new forms of propulsion we’ve only starting to dream up. And if you go too quickly, mere grains of dust floating through space become incredibly dangerous.

Based on our current technology, it’s more likely that we’re going to have to take our time getting to another star.

And if you’re going to go the slower route, you’ve got a couple of options. Create a generational ship, so that successive generations of humans are born, live out their lives, and then die during the hundreds or even thousands of year long journey to another star.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Imagine you’re one of the people destined to live and die, never reaching your destination. Especially when you look out your window and watch a warp ship zip past with all those happy tourists headed to Proxima Centauri, who were start enough to wait for warp drives to be invented.

No, you want to sleep for the journey to the nearest star, so that when you get there, it’s like no time passed. And even if warp drive did get invented while you were asleep, you didn’t have to see their smug tourist faces as they zipped past.

Is human hibernation possible? Can we do it long enough to survive a long-duration spaceflight journey and wake up again on the other side?

Before I get into this, we’re just going to have to assume that we never merge with our robot overlords, upload ourselves into the singularity, and effortlessly travel through space with our cybernetic bodies.

For some reason, that whole singularity thing never worked out, or the robots went on strike and refused to do our space exploration for us any more. And so, the job of space travel fell to us, the fragile, 80-year lifespanned mammals. Exploring the worlds within the Solar System and out to other stars, spreading humanity into the cosmos.

Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Come on, we know it’ll totally be the robots. But that’s not what the science fiction tells us, so let’s dig into it.

We see animals, and especially mammals hibernating all the time in nature. In order to be able survive over a harsh winter, animals are capable of slowing their heart rate down to just a few beats a minute. They don’t need to eat or drink, surviving on their fat stores for months at a time until food returns.

It’s not just bears and rodents that can do it, by the way, there are actually a couple of primates, including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur from Madagascar. That’s not too far away on the old family tree, so there might be hope for human hibernation after all.

In fact, medicine is already playing around with human hibernation to improve people’s chances to survive heart attacks and strokes. The current state of this technology is really promising.

They use a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which lowers the temperature of a person by a few degrees. They can use ice packs or coolers, and doctors have even tried pumping a cooled saline solution through the circulatory system. With the lowered temperature, a human’s metabolism decreases and they fall unconscious into a torpor.

But the trick is to not make them so unconscious that they die. It’s a fine line.

The results have been pretty amazing. People have been kept in this torpor state for up to 14 days, going through multiple cycles.

The therapeutic use of this torpor is still under research, and doctors are learning if it’s helpful for people with heart attacks, strokes or even the progression of diseases like cancer. They’re also trying to figure out if there are any downsides, but so far, there don’t seem to be any long-term problems with putting someone in this torpor state.

A few years ago, SpaceWorks Enterprises delivered a report to NASA on how they could use this therapeutic hypothermia for long duration spaceflight within the Solar System.

Currently, a trip to Mars takes about 6-9 months. And during that time, the human passengers are going to be using up precious air, water and food. But in this torpor state, SpaceWorks estimates that the crew will a reduction in their metabolic rate of 50 to 70%. Less metabolism, less resources needed. Less cargo that needs to be sent to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

The astronauts wouldn’t need to move around, so you could keep them nice and snug in little pods for the journey. And they wouldn’t get into fights with each other, after 6-9 months of nothing but day after day of spaceflight.

We know that weightlessness has a negative effect on the body, like loss of bone mass and atrophy of muscles. Normally astronauts exercise for hours every day to counteract the negative effects of the reduced gravity. But SpaceWorks thinks it would be more effective to just put the astronauts into a rotating module and let artificial gravity do the work of maintaining their conditioning.

They envision a module that’s 4 metres high and 8 metres wide. If you spin the habitat at 20 revolutions per minute, you give the crew the equivalent of Earth gravity. Go at only 11.8 RPM and it’ll feel like Mars gravity. Down to 7.8 and it’s lunar gravity.

Normally spinning that fast in a habitat that small would be extremely uncomfortable as the crew would experience different forces at different parts of their body. But remember, they’ll be in a state of torpor, so they really won’t care.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

Current plans for sending colonists to Mars would require 40 ton habitats to support 6 people on the trip. But according to SpaceWorks, you could reduce the weight down to 15 tons if you just let them sleep their way through the journey. And the savings get even better with more astronauts.

The crew probably wouldn’t all sleep for the entire journey. Instead, they’d sleep in shifts for a few weeks. Taking turns to wake up, check on the status of the spacecraft and crew before returning to their cryosleep caskets.

What’s the status of this now? NASA funded stage 1 of the SpaceWorks proposal, and in July, 2016 NASA moved forward with Phase 2 of the project, which will further investigate this technique for Mars missions, and how it could be used even farther out in the Solar System.

Elon Musk should be interested in seeing their designs for a 100-person module for sending colonists to Mars.

Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc
Credit: SpaceWork Enterprises, Inc

In addition, the European Space Agency has also been investigating human hibernation, and a possible way to enable long-duration spaceflight. They have plans to test out the technology on various non-hibernating mammals, like pigs. If their results are positive, we might see the Europeans pushing this technology forward.

Can we go further, putting people to sleep for decades and maybe even the centuries it would take to travel between the stars?

Right now, the answer is no. We don’t have any technology at our disposal that could do this. We know that microbial life can be frozen for hundreds of years. Right now there are parts of Siberia unfreezing after centuries of permafrost, awakening ancient microbes, viruses, plants and even animals. But nothing on the scale of human beings.

When humans freeze, ice crystals form in our cells, rupturing them permanently. There is one line of research that offers some hope: cryogenics. This process replaces the fluids of the human body with an antifreeze agent which doesn’t form the same destructive crystals.

Scientists have successfully frozen and then unfrozen 50-milliliters (almost a quarter cup) of tissue without any damage.

In the next few years, we’ll probably see this technology expanded to preserving organs for transplant, and eventually entire bodies, and maybe even humans. Then this science fiction idea might actually turn into reality. We’ll finally be able to sleep our way between the stars.

Flying Into the Sun? NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Mission

Into The Sun!


If you’ve read enough of our articles, you know I’ve got an uneasy alliance with the Sun. Sure, it provides the energy we need for all life on Earth. But, it’s a great big ongoing thermonuclear reaction, and it’s right there! As soon as we get fusion, Sun, in like, 30 years or so, I tell you, we’ll be the ones laughing.

But to be honest, we still have so many questions about the Sun. For starters, we don’t fully understand the solar wind blasting out of the Sun. This constant wind of charged particles is constantly blowing out into space, but sometimes it’s stronger, and sometimes it’s weaker.

What are the factors that contribute to the solar wind? And as you know, these charged particles are not healthy for the human body, or for our precious electronics. In fact, the Sun occasionally releases enormous blasts that can damage our satellites and electrical grids.

How can we predict the intensity so that we can be better prepared for dangerous solar storms? Especially the Carrington-class events that might take down huge portions of our modern society.

Perhaps the biggest mystery with the Sun is the temperature of its corona. The surface of the Sun is hot, like 5,500 degrees Celsius. But if you rise up into the atmosphere of the Sun, into its corona, the temperature jumps beyond a million degrees.

The list of mysteries is long. And to start understanding what’s going on, we’ll need to get much much closer to the Sun.

Good news, NASA has a new mission in the works to do just that.

The Parker Solar Probe logo. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The mission is called the Parker Solar Probe. Actually, last week, it was called the Solar Probe Plus, but then NASA renamed it, and that reminded me to do a video on it.

It’s pretty normal for NASA to rename their spacecraft, usually after a dead astronomer/space scientist, like Kepler, Chandra, etc. This time, though, they renamed it for a legendary solar astronomer Eugene Parker, who developed much of our modern thinking on the Sun’s solar wind. Parker just turned 90 and this is the first time NASA has named it after someone living.

Anyway, back to the spacecraft.

The mission is due to launch in early August 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy, so we’re still more than a year away at this point. When it does, it’ll carry the spacecraft on a very unusual trajectory through the inner Solar System.

The problem is that the Sun is actually a very difficult place to reach. In fact, it’s the hardest place to get to in the entire Solar System.

Remember that the Earth is traveling around the Sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. That’s almost three times the velocity it takes to get into orbit. That’s a lot of velocity.

In order to be able to get anywhere near the Sun, the probe needs to shed velocity. And in order to do this, it’s going to use gravitational slingshots with Venus. We’ve talked about gravitational slingshots in the past, and how you can use them to speed up a spacecraft, but you can actually do the reverse.

The Parker Solar Probe will fall down into Venus’ gravity well, and give orbital velocity to Venus. This will put it on a new trajectory which takes it closer to the Sun. It’ll do a total of 7 flybys in 7 years, each of which will tweak its trajectory and shed some of that orbital momentum.

Parker Solar Probe's trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s trajectory including Venus flybys. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

You know, trying to explain orbital maneuvering is tough. I highly recommend that you try out Kerbal Space Program. I’ve learned more about orbital mechanics by playing that game for a few months than I have in almost 2 decades of space journalism. Go ahead, try to get to the Sun, I challenge you.

Anyway, with each Venus flyby, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. Far closer than any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. At its closest point, it’ll only be 5.9 million kilometers from the Sun. Just for comparison, the Earth orbits at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers. That’s close.

And over the course of its entire mission, the spacecraft is expected to make a total of 24 complete orbits of the Sun, analyzing that plasma ball from every angle.

The orbit is also highly elliptical, which means that it’s going really really fast at its closest point. Almost 725,000 km/h.

In order to withstand the intense temperatures of being this close to the Sun, NASA has engineered the Parker Solar Probe to shed heat. It’s equipped with an 11.5 cm-thick shield made of carbon-composite. For that short time it spends really close to the Sun, the spacecraft will keep the shield up, blocking that heat from reaching the rest of its instruments.

And it’s going to get hot. We’re talking about more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, which is about 475 times as much energy as a spacecraft receives here on Earth. In the outer Solar System, the problem is that there just isn’t enough energy to power solar panels. But where Parker is going, there’s just too much energy.

Now we’ve talked about the engineering difficulties of getting a spacecraft this close to the Sun, let’s talk about the science.

Coronal holes are regions in the sun’s atmosphere or corona where solar plasma can stream directly into space. Often a hole will a couple rotations, inciting repeat auroras approximately every 4 weeks. Credit: NASA

The biggest question astronomers are looking to solve is, how does the corona get so hot. The surface is 5,500 Celsius. As you get farther away from the Sun, you’d expect the temperature to go down. And it certainly does once you get as far as the orbit of the Earth.

But the Sun’s corona, or its outer atmosphere, extends millions of kilometers into space. You can see it during a solar eclipse as this faint glow around the Sun. Instead of dropping, the temperature rises to more than a million degrees.

What could be causing this? There are a couple of ideas. Plasma waves pushed off the Sun could bunch up and release their heat into the corona. You could also get the crisscrossing of magnetic field lines that create mini-flares within the corona, heating it up.

The second great mystery is the solar wind, the stream of charged protons and electrons coming from the Sun. Instead of a constant blowing wind, it can go faster or slower. And when the speed changes, the contents of the wind change too.

There’s the slow wind, that goes a mere 1.1 million km/h and seems to emanate from the Sun’s equatorial regions. And then the fast wind, which seems to be coming out of coronal holes, cooler parts in the Sun’s corona, and can be going at 2.7 million km/h.

Why does the solar wind speed change? Why does its consistency change?

Parker Solar Probe's instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
Parker Solar Probe’s instruments. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four major instruments, each of which will gather data from the Sun and its environment.

The FIELDS experiment will measure the electric and magnetic fields and waves around the Sun. We know that much of the Sun’s behavior is driven by the complex interaction between charged plasma in the Sun. In fact, many physicists agree that magnetohydrodynamics is easily one of the most complicated fields you can get into.

Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS (which I suspect needs a renaming) will measure the charged particles streaming off the Sun, during regular solar activity and during dangerous solar storms. Can we get any warning before these events occur, giving astronauts more time to protect themselves?

Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe or WISPR is its telescope and camera. It’s going to be taking close up, high resolution images of the Sun and its corona that will blow our collective minds… I hope. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of interesting data and no pretty pictures, it’s going to be hard to make cool videos showcasing the results of the mission. You hear me NASA, we want pictures and videos. And science, sure.

And then the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure type, velocity, temperature and density of particles around the Sun, to help us understand the environment around it.

One interesting side note, the spacecraft will be carrying a tiny chip on board with photos of Eugene Parker and a copy of his original 1958 paper explaining the Sun’s solar wind.

The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
The Parker Solar Probe orbiting the Sun. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

I know we’re still more than a year away from liftoff, and several years away before the science data starts pouring in. But you’ll be hearing more and more about this mission shortly, and I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to accomplish. So stay tuned, and once the science comes in, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty more about it.

Can We Own Space? Buying Your Own Piece of the High Frontier

Space for Sale!


Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.

And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.

It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.

However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.

We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?

Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.

The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.

Can’t kill killer asteroids with nukes. Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.

In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s the relevant language:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.

And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.

But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.

Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.

Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.

But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.

The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.

Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.

In order to provide some clarity, the United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. This gave details on how space tourism should work, and described how companies might mine minerals from space. The gist of the law is, if an American citizen can get their hands on materials from an asteroid, they own it, and they’re free to sell it.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

As you know, SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars. Well, so far, their plans include building the most powerful rocket ever built, and hurling human beings at Mars, hundreds at a time. The first mission is expected to blast off in 2024, so this is quickly becoming a practical issue.

What are the legalities of colonizing Mars? Will you own a chunk of land when you stumble out of the Interplanetary Transport Ship out on the surface of Mars?

Right now, you can imagine the surface of Mars like a research station on Antarctica. If SpaceX, an American company, builds a colony on Mars, then it’s essentially US government property. Anything that happens within that colony is under the laws of the United States.

If a group of colonists from China, for example, set out on their own, they would be building a little piece of China. And no matter what kind of facility they build, nobody within the team actually owns their homes.

If you’re out on the surface, away from a base, everything reverts to international law. Watch out for space pirates!

The space pirates were everywhere. Monday suddenly got a lot more interesting. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Under the treaty, every facility is obliged to provide access to anyone else out there, which means that members of one facility are free to visit any other facility. You can’t lock your door and keep anyone out.

In fact, if anyone’s in trouble, you’re legally bound to do everything you can (within reason) to lend your assistance.

The bottom line is that the current Outer Space Treaty is not exactly prepared for the future reality of the colonization of Mars. As more and more people reach the Red Planet, you’d expect they’re going to want to govern themselves. We’ve seen this play out time and time again on Earth, so it won’t be surprising when the Mars colonies band together to declare their separation from Earth.

That said, as long as they’re reliant on regular supplies from Earth, they won’t be able to fully declare their independence. As long as they have interests on Earth, our planet’s governments will be able to squeeze them and maintain their dominance.

We've been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as the lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once a Mars colony is fully self sufficient, though, which Elon Musk estimates will occur by 1 million inhabitants, Earth will have to recognize a fully independent Mars.

Space law is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the future of space exploration. It’s really the next frontier. Concepts which were purely theoretical are becoming more and more concrete, and lawyers will finally be the heroes we always knew they could be.

If you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but your parents have always wanted you to be a lawyer, now’s your chance to do both. An astronaut space lawyer. I’m just saying, it’s an option.

Designing The Hanging Gardens Of Mars

NASA is all about solving challenges, and the goal of having a prolonged presence in space, or a colony on Mars or some other world, is full of challenges, including the necessity of growing food. Scientists at Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research are working on the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse Project to try and meet that challenge.

The Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse Project (PLMGP) is all about growing vegetables for astronauts during extended stays on the Moon, on Mars, or anywhere they can’t be resupplied from Earth. Beyond growing food, the Project aims to understand how food-growing systems can also be a part of life-support systems.

“The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.” – Dr. Ray Wheeler

“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system. The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead scientist in Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research.

The prototype itself is an inflatable, deployable system that researchers call a bioregenerative life support system. As crops are grown, the system recycles, water, recycles waste, and revitalizes the air.

The system is hydroponic, so no soil is needed. Water that is either brought along on missions or gathered in situ—on the Moon or at Mars for example—is enriched with nutrient salts, and flows continuously through plant root systems. Air in the system is recycled too. Astronauts exhale carbon dioxide, which plants absorb. Through photosynthesis, the plants produce oxygen for the astronauts.

This 18 foot long tube is a prototype of a bioregenerative life support system. The system grows crops, but also regenerates water and air. It's at the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Image: University of Arizona
This 18 foot long tube is a prototype of a bioregenerative life support system. The system grows crops, but also regenerates water and air. It’s at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Image: University of Arizona

“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”

“The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.” – Dr. Gene Giacomelli

A key part of a system like this is knowing what astronauts will have to bring with them, and what resources they can find at their destination. This includes which type of plants and seeds will be needed, as well as how much water might be available once astronauts reach their destination. Methods of extracting water on Mars or the Moon are also being researched and developed.

Even if the necessary water can be found in situ on Mars and the Moon, that hardly means those are easy places to grow food. Astronauts have to be protected from radiation, and so will crops. These greenhouse chambers would have to buried underground, which means specialized lighting systems are also required.

“We’ve been successful in using electric LED (light emitting diode) lighting to grow plants,” Dr. Wheeler said. “We also have tested hybrids using both natural and artificial lighting.” Solar light could be captured with light concentrators that track the sun and then convey the light to the chamber using fiber optic bundles.

These systems are not NASA’s first experience at growing crops in space. Experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been an important part of the research into crop production in non-terrestrial environments. The Veggie Plant Growth System was NASA’s first attempt, and astronauts successfully harvested lettuce from that system.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough harvesting lettuce from 'VEGGIE' on the International Space Station. Image: NASA
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough harvesting lettuce from ‘VEGGIE’ on the International Space Station. Image: NASA

Earth has well-established systems for sustaining life, and this project is all about taking some of that to distant destinations in space.

“I think it’s interesting to consider that we’re taking our terrestrial companions with us,” Wheeler said. “While there may be ways to engineer around it in terms of stowage and resupply, it wouldn’t be as sustainable. The greenhouses provide a more autonomous approach to long-term exploration on the moon, Mars and beyond.”

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX performed a pretty routine rocket launch. The payload was a communications satellite called SES-10, owned by a company in Luxembourg. And if all goes well, the satellite will eventually make its way to a high orbit of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) and deliver broadcasting and television services to Latin America.

For all intents and purposes, this is an absolutely normal, routine, and maybe even boring event in the space industry. Another chemical rocket blasted off another communications satellite to join the thousands of satellites that have come before.

Of course, as you probably know, this wasn’t a routine launch. It was the first step in one of the most important achievements in space flight – launch reusability. This was the second time the 14-story Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off and pushed a payload into orbit. Not Falcon 9s in general, but this specific rocket was reused.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

In a previous life, this booster blasted off on April 8, 2016 carrying CRS-8, SpaceX’s 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, released its payload, re-entered the atmosphere and returned to a floating robotic barge in the Atlantic Ocean called Of Course I Still Love You. That’s a reference to an amazing series of books by Iain M. Banks.

Why is this such an amazing accomplishment? What does the future hold for reusability? And who else is working on this?

Developing a rocket that could be reused has been one of the holy grails of the space industry, and yet, many considered it an engineering accomplishment that could never be achieved. Trust me, people have tried in the past.

Portions of the space shuttle were reused – the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters. And a few decades ago, NASA tried to develop the X-33 as a single stage reusable rocket, but ultimately canceled the program.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

To reuse a rocket makes total sense. It’s not like you throw out your car when you return from a road trip. You don’t destroy your transatlantic airliner when you arrive in Europe. You check it out, do a little maintenance, refuel it, fill it with passengers and then fly it again.

According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage costs about $30 million. If you could perform maintenance, and then refill it with fuel, you’d bring down subsequent launches to a few hundred thousand dollars.

SpaceX is still working out what a “flight-tested” launch will cost on a reused Falcon 9 will cost, but it should turn into a significant discount on SpaceX’s already aggressive prices. If other launch providers think they’re getting undercut today, just wait until SpaceX really gets cranking with these reused rockets.

For most kinds of equipment, you want them to have been re-used many times. Cars need to be taken to the test track, airplanes are flown on many flights before passengers ever climb inside. SpaceX will have an opportunity to test out each rocket many times, figuring out where they fail, and then re-engineering those components.  This makes for more durable and safer launch hardware, which I suspect is the actual goal here – safety, not cost.

In addition to the first stage, SpaceX also re-used the satellite fairing. This is the covering that makes the payload more aerodynamic while the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere. The fairing is usually ejected and burns up on re-entry, but SpaceX has figured out how to recover that too, saving a few more million.

SpaceX’s goals are even more ambitious. In addition to the first stage booster and launch fairing, SpaceX is looking to reuse the second stage booster. This is a much more complicated challenge, because the second stage is going much faster and needs to lose a lot more velocity. In late 2014, they put their plans on hold for a second stage reuse.

SpaceX’s next big milestone will be to decrease the reuse time. From almost a year to under 24 hours.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

Sometime this year, SpaceX is expected to do the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. A launch system that looks like it’s made up of 3 Falcon-9 rockets bolted together. Since that’s basically what it is.

The center booster is a reinforced Falcon-9, with two additional Falcon-9s as strap-on boosters. Once the Falcon Heavy lifts off, the three boosters will detach and will individually land back on Earth, ready for reassembly and reuse. This system will be capable of carrying 54,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX is hoping to take the technology one more step and have the upper stage return to Earth.

Imagine it. Three boosters and upper stage and payload fairing all returning to Earth and getting reused.

And waiting in the wings, of course, is SpaceX’s huge Interplanetary Transport System, announced by Elon Musk in September of 2016. The super-heavy lift vehicle will be capable of carrying 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

For comparison, the Apollo era Saturn V could carry 140,000 kg into low Earth orbit, so this thing will be much much bigger. But unlike the Saturn V, it’ll be capable of returning to Earth, and landing on its launch pad, ready for reuse.

SpaceX just crossed a milestone, but they’re not the only player in this field.

Perhaps the biggest competitor to SpaceX comes from another internet entrepreneur: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the 2nd richest man in the world after Bill Gates. Bezos founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin in Seattle, which had been working in relative obscurity for the last decade. But in the last few years, they demonstrated their technology for reusable rocket flight, and laid out their plans for competing with SpaceX.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin
The New Shepard rocket launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

In April 2015, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket on a suborbital trajectory. It went up to an altitude of about 100 km, and then came back down and landed on its launch pad again. It made a second flight in November 2015, a third flight in April 2016, and a fourth flight in June 2016.

That does sound exciting, but keep in mind that reaching 100 km in altitude requires vastly less energy than what the Spacex Falcon 9 requires. Suborbital and orbital are two totally milestones. The New Shepard will be used to carry paying tourists to the edge of space, where they can float around weightlessly in the vomit of the other passengers.

But Blue Origin isn’t done. In September 2016, they announced their plans for the follow-on New Glenn rocket. And this will compete head to head with SpaceX. Scheduled to launch by 2020, like, within 3 years or so, the New Glenn will be an absolute monster, capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. This will be comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s Space Launch System.

The New Glenn spacecraft. Credit: Blue Origin

Like the Falcon 9, the New Glenn will return to its launch pad, ready for a planned reuse of 100 flights.

A decade ago, the established United Launch Alliance – a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin – was firmly in the camp of disposable launch systems, but even they’re coming around to the competition from SpaceX. In 2014, they began an alliance with Blue Origin to develop the Vulcan rocket.

Rendering of the ULA Vulcan rocket blasting off. United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan will be more of a traditional rocket, but some of its engines will detach in mid-flight, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes and be recaptured by helicopters as they’re returning to the Earth. Since the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket, this will provide some cost savings.

There’s another level of reusability that’s still in the realm of science fiction: single stage to orbit. That’s where a rocket blasts off, flies to space, returns to Earth, refuels and does it all over again. There are some companies working on this, but it’ll be the topic for another episode.

Now that SpaceX has successfully launched a first stage booster for the second time, this is going to become the new normal. The rocket companies are going to be fine tuning their designs, focusing on efficiency, reliability, and turnaround time.

These changes will bring down the costs of launching payloads to orbit. That’ll mean it’s possible to launch satellites that were too expensive in the past. New scientific platforms, communications systems, and even human flights become more reasonable and commonplace.

Of course, we still need to take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what I talked about is still under development. That said, SpaceX just reused a rocket. They took a rocket that already launched a satellite, and used it to launch another satellite.

It’s a pretty exciting time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now you know how I feel about this accomplishment, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re at the edge of a whole new era in space exploration, or is this more of the same? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

What’s on the Surface of Venus?

What's On the Surface of Venus?


We’re always talking about Mars here on the Guide to Space. And with good reason. Mars is awesome, and there’s a fleet of spacecraft orbiting, probing and crawling around the surface of Mars.

The Red Planet is the focus of so much of our attention because it’s reasonably close and offers humanity a viable place for a second home. Well, not exactly viable, but with the right technology and techniques, we might be able to make a sustainable civilization there.

We have the surface of Mars mapped in great detail, and we know what it looks like from the surface.

But there’s another planet we need to keep in mind: Venus. It’s bigger, and closer than Mars. And sure, it’s a hellish deathscape that would kill you in moments if you ever set foot on it, but it’s still pretty interesting and mysterious to visit.

Would it surprise you to know that many spacecraft have actually made it down to the surface of Venus, and photographed the place from the ground? It was an amazing feat of Soviet engineering, and there are some new technologies in the works that might help us get back, and explore it longer.

Venera 10 image of Venusian surface (1975). 174-degree raw 6-bit logarithmically encoded telemetry seen above. Linearized and aperture corrected view in center, including data from a second 124-degree panorama. Bottom image had missing portions in-painted with Bertalmio’s algorithm.

Today, let’s talk about the Soviet Venera program. The first time humanity saw Venus from its surface.

Back in the 60s, in the height of the cold war, the Americans and the Soviets were racing to be the first to explore the Solar System. First satellite to orbit Earth (Soviets), first human to orbit Earth (Soviets), first flyby and landing on the Moon (Soviets), first flyby of Mars (Americans), first flyby of Venus (Americans), etc.

The Soviets set their sights on putting a lander down on the surface of Venus. But as we know, this planet has some unique challenges. Every place on the entire planet measures the same 462 degrees C (or 864 F).

Furthermore, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is 90 times greater than Earth. Being down at the bottom of that column of atmosphere is the same as being beneath a kilometer of ocean on Earth. Remember those submarine movies where they dive too deep and get crushed like a soda can?

Finally, it rains sulphuric acid. I mean, that’s really irritating.

Needless to say, figuring this out took the Soviets a few tries.

Venera 1
The Venera 1 spacecraft

Their first attempts to even flyby Venus was Venera 1, on February 4, 1961. But it failed to even escape Earth orbit. This was followed by Venera 2, launched on November 12, 1965, but it went off course just after launch.

Venera 3 blasted off on November 16, 1965, and was intended to land on the surface of Venus. The Soviets lost communication with the spacecraft, but it’s believed it did actually crash land on Venus. So I guess that was the first successful “landing” on Venus?

Before I continue, I’d like to talk a little bit about landing on planets. As we’ve discussed in the past, landing on Mars is really really hard. The atmosphere is thick enough that spacecraft will burn up if you aim directly for the surface, but it’s not thick enough to let you use parachutes to gently land on the surface.

Landing on the surface of Venus on the other hand, is super easy. The atmosphere is so thick that you can use parachutes no problem. If you can get on target and deploy a parachute capable of handling the terrible environment, your soft landing is pretty much assured. Surviving down there is another story, but we’ll get to that.

Venera 4 came next, launched on June 12, 1967. The Soviet scientists had few clues about what the surface of Venus was actually like. They didn’t know the atmospheric pressure, guessing it might be a little higher pressure than Earth, or maybe it was hundreds of times our pressure. It was tested with high temperatures, and brutal deceleration. They thought they’d built this thing plenty tough.

The Venera 4 spacecraft. Venera spacecraft 3 to 6 were similar. Image supplied by NASA

Venera 4 arrived at Venus on October 18, 1967, and tried to survive a landing. Temperatures on its heat shield were clocked at 11,000 C, and it experienced 300 Gs of deceleration.

The initial temperature 52 km was a nice 33C, but then as it descended down towards the surface, temperatures increased to 262 C. And then, they lost contact with the probe, killed dead by the horrible temperature.

We can assume it landed, though, and for the first time, scientists caught a glimpse of just how bad it is down there on the surface of Venus.

Venera 5 was launched on January 5, 1969, and was built tougher, learning from the lessons of Venera 4. It also made it into Venus’ atmosphere, returned some interested science about the planet and then died before it reached the surface.

Venera 6 followed, same deal. Built tougher, died in the atmosphere, returned some useful science.

Venera 7 was built with a full understanding of how bad it was down there on Venus. It launched on August 17, 1970, and arrived in December. It’s believed that the parachutes on the spacecraft only partially deployed, allowing it to descend more quickly through the Venusian atmosphere than originally planned. It smacked into the surface going about 16.5 m/s, but amazingly, it survived, and continued to send back a weak signal to Earth for about 23 minutes.

For the first time ever, a spacecraft had made it down to the surface of Venus and communicated its status. I’m sure it was just 23 minutes of robotic screaming, but still, progress. Scientists got their first accurate measurement of the temperatures, and pressure down there.

Bottom line, humans could never survive on the surface of Venus.

Venera 8 blasted off for Venus on March 17, 1972, and the Soviet engineers built it to survive the descent and landing as long as possible. It made it through the atmosphere, landed on the surface, and returned data for about 50 minutes. It didn’t have a camera, but it did have a light sensor, which told scientists being on Venus was kind of like Earth on an overcast day. Enough light to take pictures… next time.

The Venera 9 spacecraft. Image supplied by NASA

For their next missions, the Soviets went back to the drawing board and built entirely new landing craft. Built big, heavy and tough, designed to get to the surface of Venus and survive long enough to send back data and pictures.

Venera 9 was launched on June 8, 1975. It survived the atmospheric descent and landed on the surface of Venus. The lander was built like a liquid cooled reverse insulated pressure vessel, using circulating fluid to keep the electronics cooled as long as possible. In this case, that was 53 minutes. Venera 9 measured clouds of acid, bromine and other toxic chemicals, and sent back grainy black and white television pictures from the surface of Venus.

In fact, these were the first pictures ever taken from the surface of another planet.

Images from Venera 9 (top) and Venera 10 (bottom). Public Domain Images, courtesy of NASA/National Space Science Data Center.
Images from Venera 9 (top) and Venera 10 (bottom). Public Domain Images, courtesy of NASA/National Space Science Data Center.

Venera 10 lasted for 65 minutes and took pictures of the surface with one camera. The lens cap on a second camera didn’t release. The spacecraft saw lava rocks with layers of other rocks in between. Similar environments that you might see here on Earth.

Venera 11 was launched on September 9, 1975 and lasted for 95 minutes on the surface of Venus. In addition to confirming the horrible environment discovered by the other landers, Venera 11 detected lightning strikes in the vicinity. It was equipped with a color camera, but again, the lens cap failed to deploy for it or the black and white camera. So it failed to send any pictures home.

Venera 12 was launched on September 14, 1978, and made it down to the surface of Venus. It lasted 110 minutes and returned detailed information about the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, both its camera lens caps failed to deploy, so no pictures were returned. And pictures are what we really care about, right?

Venera 13 was built on the same tougher, beefier design, and was blasted off to Venus on October 30, 1981, and this one was a tremendous success. It landed on Venus and survived for 127 minutes. It took pictures of its surroundings using two cameras peering through quartz windows, and saw a landscape of bedrock. It used spring-loaded arms to test out how compressible the soil was.

The surface of Venus as captured by Soviet Venera 13 lander in March of 1982. NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Venera 14 was identical and launched just 5 days after Venera 13. It also landed and survived for 57 minutes. Unfortunately, its experiment to test the compressibility of the soil was a botch because one of its lens caps landed right under its spring-loaded arm. But apart from that, it sent back color pictures of the hellish landscape.

And with that, the Soviet Venus landing program ended. And since then, no additional spacecraft have ever returned to the surface of Venus.

It’s one thing for a lander to make it to the surface of Venus, last a few minutes and then die from the horrible environment. What we really want is some kind of rover, like Curiosity, which would last on the surface of Venus for weeks, months or even years and do more science.

And computers don’t like this kind of heat. Go ahead, put your computer in the oven and set it to 850. Oh, your oven doesn’t go to 850, that’s fine, because it would be insane. Seriously, don’t do that, it would be bad.

Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have developed a new kind of electrical circuitry that might be able to handle those kinds of temperatures. Their new circuits were tested in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig, which can simulate the surface of Venus. It can mimic the temperature, pressure and even the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere.

A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig. Credit: NASA

The circuitry, originally designed for hot jet engines, lasted for 521 hours, functioning perfectly. If all goes well, future Venus rovers could be developed to survive on the surface of Venus without needing the complex and short lived cooling systems.

This discovery might unleash a whole new era of exploration of Venus, to confirm once and for all that it really does suck.

While the Soviets had a tough time with Mars, they really nailed it with Venus. You can see how they built and launched spacecraft after spacecraft, sticking with this challenge until they got the pictures and data they were looking for. I really think this series is one of the triumphs of robotic space exploration, and I look forward to future mission concepts to pick up where the Soviets left off.

Are you excited about the prospects of exploring Venus with rovers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Exploring Titan with Aerial Platforms

Last week, from Monday Feb. 27th to Wednesday March 1st, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. During the course of the many presentations, speeches and addresses that made up the workshop, NASA and its affiliates shared their many proposals for the future of Solar System exploration.

A very popular theme during the workshop was the exploration of Titan. In addition to being the only other body in the Solar System with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and visible liquid on its surface, it also has an environment rich in organic chemistry. For this reason, a team led by Michael Pauken (from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) held a presentation detailing the many ways it can be explored using aerial vehicles.

The presentation, which was titled “Science at a Variety of Scientific Regions at Titan using Aerial Platforms“, was  also chaired by members of the aerospace industry – such as AeroVironment and Global Aerospace from Monrovia, California, and Thin Red Line Aerospace from Chilliwack, BC. Together, they reviewed the various aerial platform concepts that have been proposed for Titan since 2004.

Artist depiction of the ESA’s Huygens lander setting down on Titan, which took place on January 14th. Credit: ESA

While the concept of exploring Titan with aerial drones and balloons dates back to the 1970s and 80s, 2004 was especially important since it was at this time that the Huygens lander conducted the first exploration of the moon’s surface. Since that time, many interesting and feasible proposals for aerial platforms have been made. As Dr. Pauken told Universe Today via email:

The Cassini-Huygens mission revealed a lot about Titan we didn’t know before and that has also raised a lot more questions. It helped us determine that imaging the surface is possible below 40-km altitude so it’s exciting to know we could take aerial photos of Titan and send them back home.”

These concepts can be divided into two categories, which are Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) craft and Heavier-Than-Air (HTA) craft. And as Pauken explained, these are both well-suited when it comes to exploring a moon like Titan, which has an atmosphere that is actually denser than Earth’s – 146.7 kPa at the surface compared to 101 kPa at sea level on Earth – but only 0.14 times the gravity (similar to the Moon).

“The density of Titan’s atmosphere is higher than Earth’s so it is excellent for flying lighter-than-air vehicles like a balloon,” he said. “Titan’s low gravity is a benefit for heavier-than-air vehicles like helicopters or airplanes since they will ‘weigh’ less than they would on Earth.

Titan’s atmosphere makes Saturn’s largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“The Lighter-than-air LTA concepts are buoyant and don’t need any energy to stay aloft, so more energy can be directed towards science instruments and communications. The Heavier-than-air concepts have to consume power to stay in the air which takes away from science and telecom. But HTA can be directed to targets more quickly and accurately the LTA vehicles which mostly drift with the winds.”

TSSM Montgolfiere Balloon:

Plans for using a Montgolfiere balloon to explore Titan go back to 2008, when NASA and the ESA jointly developed the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) concept. A Flagship Mission concept, the TSSM would consist of three elements including a NASA orbiter and two ESA-designed in-situ elements – a lander to explore Titan’s lakes and a Montgolfiere balloon to explore its atmosphere.

The orbiter would rely on a Radioisotopic Power System (RPS) and Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) to reach the Saturn system. And on its way to Titan, it would be responsible for examining Saturn’s magnetosphere, flying through the plumes of Enceladus to analyze it for biological markers, and taking images of Enceladus’ “Tiger Stripes” in the southern polar region.

Artist’s concept of a Mongolfiere balloon and a deployable lander at Titan. Credit: NASA

Once the orbiter had achieved orbital insertion with Saturn, it would release the Montgolfiere during its first Titan flyby. Attitude control for the balloon would be provided by heating the ambient gas with RPS waste heat. The prime mission would last a total of about 4 years, comprised of a two-year Saturn tour, a 2-month Titan aero-sampling phase, and a 20-month Titan orbiting phase.

Of the benefits to this concept, the most obvious is the fact that a Montgolfiere vehicle powered by RPS could operate within Titan’s atmosphere for many years and would be able to change altitude with only minimal energy use. At the time, the TSSM concept was in competition with mission proposals for the moons of Europa and Ganymede.

In February of 2009, both the TSSM and the the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) concept were chosen to move forward with development, but the EJSM was given first priority. This mission was renamed the Europa Clipper, and is slated for launch in 2020 (and arriving at Europa by 2026).

Titan Helium Balloon:

Subsequent research on Montgolfiere balloons revealed that years of service and minimal energy expenditure could also be achieved in a much more compact balloon design. By combining an enveloped-design with helium, such a platform could operate in the skies of Titan for four times as long as balloons here on Earth, thanks to a much slower rate of diffusion.

Artist’s concept of the Mechanical Compression Altitude Control (MCAC) balloon, which is comprised of a number of segments that are compressed by shortening a tether that runs down the axis of the balloon. Credit: Thin Red Line Aerospace.

Altitude control would also be possible with very modest amounts of energy, which could be provided either through pump or mechanical compression. Thus, with an RPS providing power, the platform could be expected to last longer that comparable balloon designs. This envelope-helium balloon could also be paired with a glider to create a lighter-than-air vehicle capable of lateral motion as well.

Examples of the this include the Titan Winged Aerobot (TWA, shown below), which was investigated as part of NASA’s Phase One 2016 Small-Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Developed by the Global Aerospace Corporation, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman, the TWA is a hybrid entry vehicle, balloon, and maneuverable glider with 3-D directional control that could satisfy many science objectives.

Like the Mongtolfiere concept, it would rely on minimal power provided by a single RPS. Its unique buoyancy system would also allow it to descend and ascend without the need for propulsion systems or control surfaces. One drawback is the fact that it cannot land on the moon’s surface to conduct research and then take off again. However, the design does allow for low-altitude flight, which would allow for the delivery of probes to the surface.

Other concepts that have been developed in recent years include heavier-than-air aircraft, which center around the development of fixed-wing vehicles and rotorcraft.

Concept for a Titan Winged Aerobot, a hybrid balloon glider that does not require significant power either to stay aloft or to achieve lateral motion. Credit: Global Aerospace Corp/Northrup Grumman

Fixed Wing Vehicles:

Concepts for fixed-wing aircraft have also been proposed in the past for a mission to Titan. A notable example of this is the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR), an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was proposed by Jason Barnes and Lawrence Lemke in 2011 (of the University of Idaho and Central Michigan University, respectively).

Relying on an RPS that would use the waste heat of decaying Plutonium 238 to power a small rear-mounted turbine, this low-power craft would take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity to conduct sustained flight. A novel “climb-then-glide” strategy, where the engine would shut down during glide periods, would also allow for power to be stored for optimal use during telecommunication sessions.

This addresses a major drawback of fixed-wing vehicles, which is the need to subdivide power between the needs of maintaining flight and conducting scientific research. However, the AVIATR is limited in one respect, in that it cannot descend to the surface to conduct science experiments or collect samples.

Rotorcraft:

Last, but not least, is the concept for a rotorcraft. In this case, the aerial platform would be a quadcopter, which would be well-suited to Titan’s atmosphere, would allow for easy ascent and descent, and for studies to be conducted on the surface. It would also take advantage of developments made in commercial UAVs and drones in recent years.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) flying above one of Titan’s methane lake. Credit: NASA

This mission concept would consist of two components. On the one hand, there’s the rotorcraft – known as a Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) – which would rely on a rechargeable battery system to power itself while conducting short-duration flights (about an hour at a time). The second component is the “Mothercraft”, which would take the form of a lander or balloon, which the TAD would return to between flights to recharge from an onboard RPS.

Currently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing a similar concept, known as the Mars Helicopter “Scout”, for use on Mars – which is expected to be launched aboard the Mars 2020 mission. In this case, the design calls for two coaxial counter-rotating rotors, which would provide the best thrust-to-weight ratio in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Another rotorcraft concept is being pursued by Elizabeth Turtle and colleagues from John Hopkins APL and the University of Idaho (including James Barnes). With support from NASA and members of Goddard Space Flight Center, Pennsylvania State University, and Honeybee Robotics, they have proposed a concept known as the “Dragonfly“.

Their aerial vehicle would rely on four-rotors to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity. Its design would also allow it to easily obtain samples and determine the composition of the surface in multiple geological settings.  These findings will be presented at the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughter quadcopter and its “Mothercraft” balloon. Credit: NASA/STMD

While the exploration of Titan is likely to take a back seat to the exploration of Europa in the coming decades, it is anticipated that a mission will be mounted before the mid-point of this century. Not only are the scientific goals very much the same in both cases – a chance to explore a unique environment and search for life beyond Earth – but the benefits will be comparable as well.

With every potentially life-bearing body we explore, we stand to learn more about how life began in our Solar System. And even if we do not find any life in the process, we stand to learn a great deal about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, we will be one step closer to understanding humanity’s place in the Universe.

Further Reading: USRA