I just finished the most recent season of The Expanse – my current favourite Sci-Fi series. Unlike most of my other go-to Sci-Fi, The Expanse’s narrative is (thus far) mainly contained to our own Solar System. In Star Trek, ships fly about the galaxy at Faster-Than-Light speeds giving mention to the many light years (or parsecs *cough* Star Wars) travelled to say nothing of sublight journeys within solar systems themselves. The distances between stars is huge. But, for current-day Earthling technology, our Solar System itself is still overwhelmingly enormous. It takes years to get anywhere.
In The Expanse, ships use a fictional sublight propulsion called The Epstein Drive to travel quickly through the Solar System at significant fractions of light speed. We’re not nearly there yet, but we are getting closer with the announcement of a new theoretical sublight propulsion. It won’t be an Epstein drive, but it may come to be known as the Ebrahimi Drive – an engine inspired by fusion reactors and the incredible power of solar Coronal Mass Ejections.
It’s not easy living and working in space for extended periods of time. As NASA’s Twins Study illustrated, microgravity takes a toll on human physiology, which is followed by a painful transition back to normal gravity (just ask Scott Kelly!) Aside from muscle and bone degeneration, there’s diminished organ function, effects on cardiovascular health, the central nervous system, and “subtle changes” on the genetic level.
Until now, the biggest unanswered question was what the underlying cause of these physical impacts was. But after reviewing all of the data accumulated from decades of research aboard the International Space Station (ISS) – which included the Twins Study and DNA samples taken from dozens of astronauts – an international team of researchers came to the conclusion that mitochondria might be the driving force for these changes.
Gravity is good for a lot of things. It brings objects closer together. Occasionally they crash into each other. But sometimes two objects get locked in a unique gravitational dance that pairs them together. That dance can be short-lived, or it can last for billions of years. In some cases the objects are large (i.e. planets and moons), but they can also be quite small.
These small dancing objects are called binary asteroids, and we know very little about them, despite making up approximately 15% of all asteroids in the solar system. That is until a newly greenlighted NASA mission, called Janus, will arrive at two different binary asteroids around 2026.
In the current era of space exploration, the name of the game is “cost-effective.” By reducing the costs associated with individual launches, space agencies and private aerospace companies (aka. NewSpace) are ensuring that access to space is greater. And when it comes to the cost of launches, the single-greatest expense is that of propellant. To put it simply, breaking free to Earth’s gravity takes a lot of rocket fuel!
To address this, researchers at the University of Washington recently developed a mathematical model that describes the workings of a new launch mechanism: the rotating detonation engine (RDE). This lightweight design offers greater fuel-efficiency and is less complicated to construct. However, it comes with the rather large trade-off of being too unpredictable to be put into service right now.
Not all rovers are designed to roam around on the surface of other worlds like Mars. One rover, at least, is aquatic; a necessary development if we’re going to explore Enceladus, Europa, and the Solar System’s other watery worlds. This rover is called the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE.
Picture two tissue box-sized spacecraft orbiting Earth.
Then picture them communicating, and using a water-powered thruster to approach each other. If you can do that, then you’re up to speed on one of the activities of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP.) It’s all part of NASA’s effort to develop small spacecraft to serve their space exploration, science, space operations, and aeronautics endeavors.
The ESA is helping a group of students from Zurich test and develop their hopping exploration robot. Called SpaceBok, the robot is designed to operate on low-gravity bodies like the Moon or asteroids. It’s based on the concept of ‘dynamic walking’, something that animals on Earth use.
It’s too bad Mars is such an interesting place, because it’s actually one of the most difficult places to visit in the Solar System, especially if you want to bring along a lot of luggage. That planet is a graveyard of missions that didn’t quite make it.