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

NASA’s Favorite Photos of 2016

There are a group of unsung heroes at NASA, the people who travel the world to capture key events in our exploration of space. They share their images with all of us, but most of the time, it’s not just the pictures of launches, landings, and crucial mission events that they capture. They also show us behind-the-scenes events that otherwise might go unnoticed, and they also capture the true personalities of the people behind the missions and events.

From exciting beginnings of rocket launches and rocket tests to the sad losses of space exploration icons, these photographers are there take these images that will forever remind us of the glories and perils of spaceflight and the joys and sadness of human life.

NASA photographers Bill Ingalls, Aubrey Gemignani, Joel Kowsky, Connie Moore, and Gwen Pitman chose some of their favorites images from 2016, and below are just a few. As Ingalls told us, “These are the favorite images created by our HQ photo team, not from the entire agency. There are many more talented photographers at the NASA centers producing some amazing work as well.”

In this 30 second exposure taken with a circular fish-eye lens, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower as a photographer wipes moisture from the camera lenses Friday, August 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The team from the Juno mission celebrate after they received confirmation from the spacecraft that it had successfully completed the engine burn and entered orbit of Jupiter on July 4, 2016 in mission control of the Space Flight Operations Facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Juno will orbit the planet for 20 months to collect data on the planetary core, map the magnetic field, and measure the amount of water and ammonia in the atmosphere. Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft lifts off on from Space Launch Complex 41 on Sept. 8, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. The asteroid, Bennu, may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of water and organic molecules found on Earth. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
Annie Glenn, Widow of former astronaut and Senator John Glenn, pays her respects to her late husband as he lies in repose, under a United States Marine honor guard, in the Rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Piers Sellers, former astronaut and deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, speaks at NASA’s Earth Day event, Friday, April 22, 2016 at Union Station in Washington, DC. Sadly, Sellers passed away on Dec. 23, after battling cancer. Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
The Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 48 crew members NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Following his year in space on board the International Space Station, astronaut Scott Kelly spoke during an event at the United States Capitol Visitor Center, on May 25, 2016, in Washington. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson gets her hair cut on Nov. 14, 2016 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, a few days before launching to spend about six months on the International Space Station. Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Click on each of the images to see larger versions on Flickr. You can see the entire selection of these favorite photos from 2016 on the NASA HQ Flickr page.

Why Space Exploration Represents the Best of Humanity

The current divisiveness that seems to be permeating our culture has many wondering if we can ever overcome the divisions to find our common humanity, and be able to work together to solve our problems. I’ve said – only somewhat jokingly — that if there are any alien species out there, waiting to make first contact with the people of Earth in order to unify our planet, now would be a good time.

I saw a quote last week, where in remembering astronaut John Glenn, Bill Nye said “Space exploration brings out our best.”

I really believe that. Space exploration challenges us to not only to be and do our best, but reach beyond the ordinary, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then to push even further. That “intangible desire to explore and challenge the boundaries of what we know and where we have been,” as NASA has phrased it, has provided benefits to our society for centuries. With space exploration, our desire to answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe can not only help to expand technology, but it helps us look at things in new ways and it seems to help foster a sense of cooperation, and – if I may – peaceful and enduring connections with our fellow humans.

If we could only look for and encourage the best in each other, and simply spend time cooperating and working together, I think we’d be amazed at what we could accomplish.

The people involved in space exploration already do that.

The team from the Mars Science Laboratory celebrate the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August of 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The team from the Mars Science Laboratory celebrate the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August of 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of our best, brightest and boldest and witness the cooperation and respect that it takes for space missions to succeed. Over the past several months, I interviewed 37 NASA scientists and engineers from current robotic missions for a book I wrote, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” In all these stories these scientists and engineers shared with me, several things stood out.

Cooperation

Space exploration offers an incredible example of cooperation. Getting a mission off the ground and keeping it operational for as long as possible takes an amazing amount of cooperation. A delightful children’s book titled “Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon” by Catherine Thimmesh shows how it took hundreds of thousands of people from not just the United States, but also from around the world to send the astronauts to the Moon. From rocket scientists to the seamstresses that sewed the spacesuits together, to the radio operators around the globe that monitored communications, each person, each step was an important link in the chain of what it took to make the Apollo 11 mission possible.

And while my book focuses on NASA missions (I really wish traveling abroad to include missions from other space agencies would have been in my budget!) almost all robotic missions these days are international ventures.

Helmut Jenkner, who is currently the Interim Head of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission, told me that the international nature of the Hubble mission has brought an inherent diversity to the project. The diverse approach to solving problems has helped Hubble be such a successful mission, and with Hubble in space for nearly 27 years, Jenkner said that diverse approach has helped the Hubble mission to endure.

JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA's Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA’s Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In virtually all robotic missions, scientists from around the world work together and provide their expertise from building instruments to analyzing the data. Working across borders and languages can be difficult, but for the mission to succeed, cooperation is essential. Because of the common goal of mission success, differences from major to petty can be put aside.

On a robotic spacecraft, the many different components and instruments on board are built by different companies, sometimes in several different countries, but yet all the pieces have to fit together perfectly in order for a mission to succeed. Just putting together a mission concept takes an incredible amount of cooperation from both scientists and engineers, as they need to figure out the great compromise of what is possible versus what would be ideal.

I don’t mean to be completely Pollyanna here, as certainly, there are personality conflicts, and I know there are people involved in space missions who have to work side-by-side with someone they don’t really like or don’t agree with. There is also intense competition: the competition for missions to be chosen to get sent to space, the rivalry for who gets to lead and make important decisions, and disagreements on the best way to proceed in times of difficulty. But yet, these people work it out, doing what is necessary in order for the mission to succeed.

Inclusiveness

An artist's conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA
An artist’s conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA

Space exploration brings out a sense of inclusiveness. Many of the Apollo astronauts have said that when they traveled to other countries following the missions, people around the world would say how proud they were that “we went to the Moon.” It wasn’t just the US, but “we humans” did it.

When the Curiosity rover landed, when Juno went into orbit around Jupiter, when the Rosetta mission successfully went into orbit around a comet (and then when the mission ended), when New Horizons successfully flew by Pluto, my social media feeds were filled with people around the world rejoicing together.

Being inclusive and encouraging diversity are “mission critical” for going to space, said astrophysicist Jedidah Isler at the recent White House Frontiers Conference. “We have both the opportunity and the obligation to engage our entire population in this epic journey [into space],” she said.

Also at White House Frontiers, President Obama said that “Problem solving through science, together we can tackle some of the biggest challenges we face.”

Dedication and Commitment

New Horizons flight controllers celebrate after they received confirmation of the spacecraft's successful flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
New Horizons flight controllers celebrate after they received confirmation of the spacecraft’s successful flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Another human aspect that stood out during my interviews is the dedication and commitment of the people who work on these missions to explore the cosmos. Interview after interview, I was amazed by the enthusiasm and excitement embodied by these scientists and engineers, their passion for what they do. I truly hope that in the book, I was able to capture and convey their incredible spirit of exploration and discovery.

Space exploration takes people working long hours, figuring out how to do things that have never been done before, and never giving up to succeed. Alan Stern, Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto explained how it took “dedication from 2,500 people around the country who worked all day plus nights and weekends for over 15 years” for the mission to makes its successful flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The dedication continues as the New Horizons team has their sights on another ancient body in the Kuiper Belt that the spacecraft will explore in January 2019.

Taking the larger view.

 

The first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. The image was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's panoramic camera on March 8, 2004, one hour before sunrise on the 63rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL.
The first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. The image was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit’s panoramic camera on March 8, 2004, one hour before sunrise on the 63rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Space exploration helps us look beyond ourselves.

“A lot of space exploration is taking you out of the trees so you get a glimpse of the forest,” Rich Zurek told me when I visited him at JPL this year. Zurek is the head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, as well as the Project Scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “A classic example is the Apollo 8 view of the Earth over the Moon’s horizon. You can imagine what the planet looks like but when you actually see it, it is very different and can evoke many different things.”

The first views of Earth from space and seeing the fragileness of our planet from a distance help launch the environmental movement in the 1970’s, which continues today. That planetary perspective is crucial to the future of humanity and our ability solve world-wide problems.

“Working on a project like this gives meaning in general because you are doing something that is outside of yourself, outside of our personal problems and struggles, and you really think about the human condition,” said Natalie Batalha, who is the mission scientist for the Kepler missions’ hunt for planets around distant stars. “Kepler really makes us think about the bigger picture of why we’re here and what we’re evolving towards and what else might be out there.”

Space explorations expands our horizons, feeds our curiosity, and helps us finding all sorts of unexpected things while helping to answer profound questions like how did the Universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone?

Does that sound too utopian? Like in Star Trek, space exploration offers an optimistic view of the future, and humanity. Star Trek’s “Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations” says the only way we grow is through new ideas and experiences, and as soon as we stop exploring, we stop growing.

“We are all confined to Earth but yet we reach out and undertake these grand adventures to space,” said Marc Rayman, who is the director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt. He is one of the most passionate people – passionate about space exploration and life itself — I’ve ever talked to. “We do this in order to comprehend the majesty of the cosmos and to express and act upon this passion we feel for exploration. Who hasn’t looked at the night sky in wonder? Who hasn’t wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond? Who doesn’t long to know the universe?”

“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” Rayman continued. “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.”

book-cover-image-final-incredible-001
“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos”is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with delivery by Dec. 20.

Stephen Hawking Issues A Wake Up Call

It has been argued that the greatest reason our species should explore space and colonize other planets is so that a cataclysmic fate won’t be able to claim all of humanity. That is the driving force behind Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. And it has certainly been the driving point behind Stephen Hawking’s belief that humanity should become an interplanetary-species.

And according to Hawking, becoming interplanetary is something of a time-sensitive issue. During a recent speech presented at the Oxford Union Society (Oxford University’s prestigious debating society) Hawking laid it out plainly for the audience. Humanity has 1000 years to locate and colonize new planets, he claimed, or we will likely go extinct.

For almost 200 years, the Oxford Union Society has been a forum for intellectual debate. In the past, it has also hosted such speakers as the Dalai Lama, Stephen Fry, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dawkins, and Buzz Aldrin. On this occasion, Hawking addressed a crowd of students and professors about space exploration and humanity’s future – two subjects he’s well versed in!

Stephen Hawking is a major proponent for colonizing other worlds, mainly to ensure humanity does not go extinct. Credit: educatinghumanity.com
Stephen Hawking is a major proponent for colonizing other worlds, mainly to ensure humanity does not go extinct. Credit: educatinghumanity.com

As Hawking made clear, humanity faces a number of existential threats, many of which are going to become a serious problem during the 21 century century. These include, but are not limited to, the threat of Climate Change, nuclear holocaust, terrorism, and the rise of artificial intelligence. The solution, Hawking argued, is to get into space and establish colonies as soon as possible.

As he was quoted as saying by the Christian Science Monitor, this will need to take place within the next 1000 years:

“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years. By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”

This was not the first time Hawking has expressed concerns about the future. In January of 2015, Hawking joined Elon Musk and many other AI experts to pen the “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence” – aka. the “Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence”. In this letter, he and the other signatories raised concerns about the short-term and long-term implications of AI, and urged that steps be taken to address them.

President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the Blue Room of the White House before a ceremony presenting him and 15 others the Presidential Medal of Freedom, August 12, 2009. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the Blue Room of the White House before a ceremony presenting him and 15 others the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12th, 2009. Credit: whitehouse.gov/Pete Souza

In addition, back in January of 2016, Hawking warned that humanity’s technological progress has the power to outstrip us. This occurred during his speech at the 2016 Leith Lectures, where Hawking spoke about black holes and why they are fascinating. During the Q&A period that followed, Hawking turned to the much more dour subject of whether or not humanity has a future. As he said at the time:

“We face a number of threats to our survival, from nuclear war, catastrophic global warming, and genetically engineered viruses. The number is likely to increase in the future, with the development of new technologies, and new ways things can go wrong. However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period. Most of the threats we face come from the progress we have made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognize the dangers and control them. I am an optimist, and I believe we can.”

Similarly, Hawking indicated back in 2010 that humanity’s survival beyond the next century would require that we become a space-faring race. In an interview with Big Think, Hawking claimed the odds of humanity making it to the 22nd century was bad enough for a single-planet species, let alone the 31st:

“I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Hawking has repeatedly advocated space exploration and colonization as a way of ensuring humanity’s survival. Credit: NASA/MSFC

But before anyone gets all gloomy, it should be noted that between our plans to colonize Mars, and the success of the Kepler mission, we have found hundreds of planets that could serve as potential homes for humanity. But as Hawking has stated in the past, we will need at least 100 years to develop all the necessary technologies to build colonies on even the closest of these planets (Mars).

Beyond our survival as a species, Professor Hawking also advocates space travel as a way of improving humanity’s understanding of itself. This was made evident in a direct quote that the Union live-tweeted during the speech, in which he said: “We must continue exploring space in order to improve our knowledge of humanity. We must go beyond our humble planet.”

And as he has done so often before, Hawking ended his speech on an optimistic note. According to the Independent, he wrapped up his Oxford lecture with the following words of advice:

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

It seems we have our work cut out for us. Extra-terrestrial and/or extra-solar colonies by 3016… or bust!

Further Reading: Oxford Mail, CS Monitor, Independent

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 Mars Curse?

What is the Mars Curse?


Last week, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander smashed onto the surface of Mars. Apparently its descent thrusters shut off early, and instead of gently landing on the surface, it hit hard, going 300 km/h, creating a 15-meter crater on the surface of Mars.

Fortunately, the orbiter part of ExoMars mission made it safely to Mars, and will now start gathering data about the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. If everything goes well, this might give us compelling evidence there’s active life on Mars, right now.

It’s a shame that the lander portion of the mission crashed on the surface of Mars, but it’s certainly not surprising. In fact, so many spacecraft have gone to the galactic graveyard trying to reach Mars that normally rational scientists turn downright superstitious about the place. They call it the Mars Curse, or the Great Galactic Ghoul.

Mars eats spacecraft for breakfast. It’s not picky. It’ll eat orbiters, landers, even gentle and harmless flybys. Sometimes it kills them before they’ve even left Earth orbit.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

At the time I’m writing this article in late October, 2016, Earthlings have sent a total of 55 robotic missions to Mars. Did you realize we’ve tried to hurl that much computing metal towards the Red Planet? 11 flybys, 23 orbiters, 15 landers and 6 rovers.

How’s our average? Terrible. Of all these spacecraft, only 53% have arrived safe and sound at Mars, to carry out their scientific mission. Half of all missions have failed.

Let me give you a bunch of examples.

In the early 1960s, the Soviets tried to capture the space exploration high ground to send missions to Mars. They started with the Mars 1M probes. They tried launching two of them in 1960, but neither even made it to space. Another in 1962 was destroyed too.

They got close with Mars 1 in 1962, but it failed before it reached the planet, and Mars 2MV didn’t even leave the Earth’s orbit.

Five failures, one after the other, that must have been heartbreaking. Then the Americans took a crack at it with Mariner 3, but it didn’t get into the right trajectory to reach Mars.

Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Finally, in 1964 the first attempt to reach Mars was successful with Mariner 4. We got a handful of blurry images from a brief flyby.

For the next decade, both the Soviets and Americans threw all kinds of hapless robots on a collision course with Mars, both orbiters and landers. There were a few successes, like Mariner 6 and 7, and Mariner 9 which went into orbit for the first time in 1971. But mostly, it was failure. The Soviets suffered 10 missions that either partially or fully failed. There were a couple of orbiters that made it safely to the Red Planet, but their lander payloads were destroyed. That sounds familiar.

Now, don’t feel too bad about the Soviets. While they were struggling to get to Mars, they were having wild success with their Venera program, orbiting and eventually landing on the surface of Venus. They even sent a few pictures back.

Finally, the Americans saw their greatest success in Mars exploration: the Viking Missions. Viking 1 and Viking 2 both consisted of an orbiter/lander combination, and both spacecraft were a complete success.

View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Was the Mars Curse over? Not even a little bit. During the 1990s, the Russians lost a mission, the Japanese lost a mission, and the Americans lost 3, including the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander.

There were some great successes, though, like the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Pathfinder. You know, the one with the Sojourner Rover that’s going to save Mark Watney?

The 2000s have been good. Every single American mission has been successful, including Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and others.

But the Mars Curse just won’t leave the Europeans alone. It consumed the Russian Fobos-Grunt mission, the Beagle 2 Lander, and now, poor Schiaparelli. Of the 20 missions to Mars sent by European countries, only 4 have had partial successes, with their orbiters surviving, while their landers or rovers were smashed.

Is there something to this curse? Is there a Galactic Ghoul at Mars waiting to consume any spacecraft that dare to venture in its direction?

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

Flying to Mars is tricky business, and it starts with just getting off Earth. The escape velocity you need to get into low-Earth orbit is about 7.8 km/s. But if you want to go straight to Mars, you need to be going 11.3 km/s. Which means you might want a bigger rocket, more fuel, going faster, with more stages. It’s a more complicated and dangerous affair.

Your spacecraft needs to spend many months in interplanetary space, exposed to the solar winds and cosmic radiation.

Arriving at Mars is harder too. The atmosphere is very thin for aerobraking. If you’re looking to go into orbit, you need to get the trajectory exactly right or crash onto the planet or skip off and out into deep space.

And if you’re actually trying to land on Mars, it’s incredibly difficult. The atmosphere isn’t thin enough to use heatshields and parachutes like you can on Earth. And it’s too thick to let you just land with retro-rockets like they did on the Moon.

Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli lander’s planned descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

Landers need a combination of retro-rockets, parachutes, aerobraking and even airbags to make the landing. If any one of these systems fails, the spacecraft is destroyed, just like Schiaparelli.

If I was in charge of planning a human mission to Mars, I would never forget that half of all spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet failed. The Galactic Ghoul has never tasted human flesh before. Let’s put off that first meal for as long as we can.

Shouldn’t We Fix the Earth First?

I seem like a pretty calm and collected guy, but if you want to see me go on an epic rant, all you have to do is ask me some variation on the question: “why should we bother exploring space when we’ve got problems to fix here on Earth.”

I see this question all the time. All the time, in forums, comments on videos, and from people in audiences.

I think the question is ridiculous on many levels, and I’ve got a bunch of reasons why, but allow me to explain them here.

Before I do, however, I want you to understand that I believe that we human beings are indeed messing up the environment. We’re wiping out species faster than any natural disaster in the history of planet Earth. We’re performing a dangerous experiment on the climate of the planet, increasing temperatures worldwide, with devastating consequences, for both ecosystems and human civilization.

Credit: USFS Gila National Forest (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Credit: USFS Gila National Forest (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unless we get this under control, and there’s no reason to believe we will, we’re going to raise temperatures to levels unseen in millions of years.

There are islands of plastic garbage in the oceans, collected into huge toxic rafts by the currents. Colonies of bees are dying through pesticides and habitat loss.

We’re even polluting the space around the Earth with debris that might tear apart future space missions.

I believe the science, and the science says we’re making a mess.

The first thing is that this whole question is a false dilemma fallacy. Why do we have to choose between space exploration and saving the planet? Why can’t we do both?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The world spent nearly $750 billion on cigarettes in 2014. NASA’s total budget is less than $20 billion, and Elon Musk thinks he can start sending colonists to Mars for less than $10 billion.

How about the whole world stops smoking, and we spend $20 billion on colonizing Mars and the other $730 billion on renewable fuels and cleaning up our negative impact on the environment, reducing poverty and giving people access to clean water?

Americans spend $27 billion on takeout pizza. Don’t get me wrong, pizza’s great, but I’d be willing to forego pizza if it meant a vibrant and healthy industry of space exploration.

Gambling, lawn care, hood ornaments, weapons of war. Humans spend a lot of money on a lot of things that could be redirected towards both space exploration and reducing our environmental impact.

Number two, it might turn out that space exploration is the best way to save the Earth. I totally agree with Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos when he says that we already know that Earth is the best place in the Solar System. Let’s keep it that way.

Mars might be a fascinating place to visit and an adventure to colonize, but I want to swim in rivers, climb mountains, walk in forests, watch birds, sail in the ocean.

But the way we’re using up the natural environment will take away from all that. As Bezos says, we should move all the heavy industry off Earth and up into space. Use solar collectors to gather power, mine asteroids for their raw materials. Keep Earth as pristine as possible.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt
Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

We won’t know how to do that unless we actually go into space and learn how to survive and run that industry, from space.

Number three, it might be that we’ve already crossed the point of no return. There’s a great science fiction story by Spider Robinson called “In the Olden Days”. It’s about how modern society turned its back on technology, and lost the ability to ever recover.

Humanity used up the entire technology ladder that nature put in front of us; the chunks of iron just sitting on the ground, the oil bubbling out of the Earth, the coal that was easily accessible. Now it takes an offshore drilling rig to get at the oil.

These resources took the Earth millions and even billions of years to accumulate for us to use, and transcend. When the cockroaches evolve intelligence and opposable thumbs, they won’t have those easily accessible resources to jumpstart their own space exploration program.

Number four, as Elon Musk says, we have to protect the cradle of consciousness. Until we find proof otherwise, we have to assume that the Earth is the only place in the Universe that evolved intelligent life.

And until the alien overlords show up and say, “don’t worry humans, we’ve got this,” we have to assume that the responsibility for seeding the life with intelligence rests on us. And we’re one asteroid strike or nuclear apocalypse away from snuffing that out.

I don’t entirely agree that Mars is the best place to do it, but we should at least have another party going on somewhere.

NASA astronaut Ed White during a spacewalk June 3, 1965. In his hand, the Gemini 4 astronaut carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) to help him maneuver in microgravity. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Ed White during a spacewalk June 3, 1965. In his hand, the Gemini 4 astronaut carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) to help him maneuver in microgravity. Credit: NASA

And number five, it’ll be fun. Humans need adventure. We need great challenges to push us to become the best versions of ourselves. We climb mountains because they’re there.

Ask anyone who’s built their own house or tried their hand at homesteading. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s also rewarding in ways that buying stuff just isn’t.

The next time someone uses that argument on you, I hope this gives you some ammunition.

Phew, now I’ll get off my soapbox. Next week, I’m sure we’ll return to poop jokes, obscure science fiction references with a smattering of space science.

A New NASA Cumulative Time in Space Record

The International Space Station has provided astronauts and space agencies with immense opportunities for research during the decade and a half that it has been in operation. In addition to studies involving meteorology, space weather, materials science, and medicine, missions aboard the ISS has also provided us with valuable insight into human biology.

For example, studies conducted aboard the ISS’ have provided us with information about the effects of long-term exposure to microgravity. And all the time, astronauts are pushing the limits of how long someone can healthily remain living under such conditions. One such astronauts is Jeff Williams, the Expedition 48 commander who recently established a new record for most time spent in space.

This record-breaking feat began back in 2000, when Williams spent 10 days aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-101. At the time, the International Space Station was still under construction, and as the mission’s flight engineer and spacewalker, Williams helped prepare the station for its first crew.

Station Commander Jeff Williams passed astronaut Scott Kelly, also a former station commander, on Aug. 24, 2016, for most cumulative days living and working in space by a NASA astronaut (520 days and counting). Williams is scheduled to land Sept. 6, 2016, for a record total of 534 days in space. Credit: NASA
Station Commander Jeff Williams passed astronaut Scott Kelly, also a former station commander, on Aug. 24, 2016, for most cumulative days living and working in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA

This was followed up in 2006, where Williams’ served as part of Expedition 13 to the ISS. The station had grown significantly at this point with the addition of Russian Zvezda service module, the U.S. Destiny laboratory, and the Quest airlock. Numerous science experiments were also being conducted at this time, which included studies into capillary flow and the effects of microgravity on astronauts’ central nervous systems.

During the six months he was aboard the station, Williams was able to get in two more spacewalks, set up additional experiments on the station’s exterior, and replaced equipment. Three years later, he would return to the station as part of Expedition 21, then served as the commander of Expedition 22, staying aboard the station for over a year (May 27th, 2009 to March 18th, 2010).

By the time Expedition 48’s Soyuz capsule launched to rendezvous with the ISS on July 7th, 2016, Williams had already spent more than 362 days in space. By the time he returns to Earth on Sept. 6th, he will have spent a cumulative total of 534 days in space. He will have also surpassed the previous record set by Scott Kelly, who spent 520 days in space over the course of four missions.

 Expedition 48 crew portrait with 46S crew (Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, Aleksei Ovchinin) and 47S crew (Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, Takuya Onishi). Credit: NASA

Expedition 48 crew portrait with 46S crew (Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, Aleksei Ovchinin) and 47S crew (Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, Takuya Onishi). Credit: NASA

On Wednesday, August 24th, the International Space Station raised its orbit ahead of Williams’ departure. Once he and two of his mission colleagues – Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin – undock in their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft, they begin their descent towards Kazakhstan, arriving on Earth roughly three and a half hours later.

Former astronaut Scott Kelly was a good sport about the passing of this record, congratulating Williams in a video created by the Johnson Space Center (see below). Luckily, Kelly still holds the record for the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – which lasted a stunning 340 days.

And Williams may not hold the record for long, as astronaut Peggy Whitson is scheduled to surpass him in 2017 during her next mission (which launches this coming November). And as we push farther out into space in the coming years, mounting missions to NEOs and Mars, this record is likely to be broken again and again.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the meantime, Williams and his crew will continue to dedicate their time to a number of crucial experiments. In the course of this mission, they have conducted research into human heart function, plant growth in microgravity, and executed a variety of student-designed experiments.

Like all research conducted aboard the ISS, the results of this research will be used to improve health treatments, have numerous industrial applications here on Earth, and will help NASA plan mission farther into space. Not the least of which will be NASA’s proposed (and rapidly approaching) crewed mission to Mars.

In addition to spending several months in zero-g for the sake of the voyage, NASA will need to know how their astronauts will fair when conducting research on the surface of Mars, where the gravity is roughly 37% that of Earth (0.376 g to be exact).

And be sure to enjoy this video of Scott Kelly congratulating Williams on his accomplishment, courtesy of the Johnson Space Center:

Further Reading: NASA

Spaceports and the Future of Space Exploration

Let yourself imagine a spaceport. I bet you put a grand concourse in the center with a fine selection of rockets descending and ascending together with space planes making their final approaches or taking off to worlds who knows where? Perhaps just behind snaking off toward the horizon is a common asphalt road with autonomous electric cars whizzing their passengers to and from the concourse. And assuredly there’s an above ground or below ground rail system that provides convenient access to those in the nearby city. At least that’s what my imagination pictures.

While my idea of space transportation may seem somewhat farfetched, the idea of a spaceport isn’t. Actually the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States of America has already licensed 10 spaceports or Launch Site Operators as they call them. Interestingly the same FAA also licenses 12 Active Launch providers.

Curious that NASA isn’t on the list of licensed Active Launchers. I wonder if they will be allowed to launch their new Space Launch System. Anyway, there’s been another treat for us in that the FAA has recently approved a commercial venture to the Moon. Can this be any more exciting? It seems that we’ve made the grade with space ports launchers and we’ve become a space faring species. There’s nothing farfetched about this reality.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The commercial company is Moon Express. It’s not surprising that they’ve sought approval as their ultimate goal is to win the Google Lunar X Prize. Presumably if they purchase a launch from the United States then they need a licensed one. And the launch company will only loft the Moon Express robot to the Moon with permission.

Illustration of Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander. Credit: Moon Express
Illustration of Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander. Credit: Moon Express

Now this is where things get a bit interesting. Moon Express has mentioned that they will use Rocket Lab to hurl their robot to the Moon. But Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand and they aren’t on the FAA list of Active Launchers. You may understand more by perusing the licensing. It seems that any United States citizen must comply with the rules wherever in the world they launch. Nevertheless it seems that we can sleep with warm hearts as apparently our space faring dreams are coming to fruition.

Yet I wonder if all really is the lotus lands that it seems. For one, why does the FAA or any government on Earth have any jurisdictional rights on accessing the Moon? Did the Chang’e 3 team need permission before they flew? I think not.

Further, does granting permission make the granter liable? Do you have any memories of the furor over the Skylab vessel re-entering on top of Australia in 1979? And whether the United States was found liable? I guess this is where 51 USC Code 50914 comes in. It shows that the licensing is apparently all about managing the risk. Does this imply that the existing judicial structure on Earth is inappropriate for space? Can you imagine the fun that journalists would have if they heard of a theft occurring on the International Space Station? Who would investigate? Who would oversee the trial and make judgement? There are some big questions remaining to be answered before people can sit idly watching rockets roar up from a spaceport with their loved ones safely tucked in.

Nevertheless while uncertainties remain, we are seeing progress. We see the basis of an international legal system. We see space transportation infrastructure that serves the customer rather than the scientist. We see individuals achieving feats that previously were the sole domain of governments. So I say, “Yes imagine your spaceport! Believe in the ability to travel far above Earth and into the furthest reaches of our solar system. Believe in a future of our making.”

Lightweight Telescopes In CubeSats Using Carbon Nanotube Mirrors

Ever since they were first produced, carbon nanotubes have managed to set off a flurry excitement in the scientific community. With applications ranging from water treatment and electronics, to biomedicine and construction, this should come as no surprise. But a team of NASA engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has pioneered the use of carbon nanotubes for yet another purpose – space-based telescopes.

Using carbon nanotubes, the Goddard team – which is led by Dr. Theodor Kostiuk of NASA’s Planetary Systems Laboratory and Solar System Exploration Division – have created a revolutionary new type of telescope mirror. These mirrors will be deployed as part of a CubeSat, one which may represent a new breed of low-cost, highly effective space-based telescopes.

This latest innovation also takes advantage of another field that has seen a lot of development of late. CubeSats, like other small satellites, have been playing an increasingly important role in recent years. Unlike the larger, bulkier satellites of yesteryear, miniature satellites are a low-cost platform for conducting space missions and scientific research.

John Kolasinski (left), Ted Kostiuk (center), and Tilak Hewagama (right) hold mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. The mirror is being tested for potential use in a lightweight telescope specifically for CubeSat scientific investigations. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
Dr. Ted Kostiuk (center), flanked by John Kolasinski (left), and Tilak Hewagama (right), holding mirrors made of carbon nanotubes in an epoxy resin. Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk

Beyond federal space agencies like NASA, they also offer private business and research institutions the opportunity to conduct communications, research and observation from space. On top of that, they are also a low-cost way to engage students in all phases of satellite construction, deployment, and space-based research.

Granted, missions that rely on miniature satellites are not likely to generate the same amount of interest or scientific research as large-scale operations like the Juno mission or the New Horizons space probe. But they can provide vital information as part of larger missions, or work in groups to gather greater amounts of data.

With the help of funding from Goddard’s Internal Research and Development program, the team created a laboratory optical bench made of regular off-the-shelf components to test the telescope’s overall design. This bench consists of a series of miniature spectrometers tuned to the ultraviolet,  visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, which are connected to the focused beam of the nanotube mirrors via an optic cable.

Using this bench, the team is testing the optical mirrors, seeing how they stand up to different wavelengths of light. Peter Chen – the president of Lightweight Telescopes a Maryland-based company – is one of the contractors working with the Goddard team to create the CubeSat telescope. As he was quoted as saying by a recent NASA press release:

“No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin. This is a unique technology currently available only at Goddard. The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement. But this is what my Goddard colleagues (Kostiuk, Tilak Hewagama, and John Kolasinski) are trying to accomplish through the CubeSat program.

The laboratory breadboard that is being used to test a conceptual telescope for use on CubeSat missions. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
The laboratory breadboard that is being used to test a conceptual telescope for use on CubeSat missions. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

Unlike other mirrors, the one created by Dr. Kostiuk’s team was fabricated out of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin. Naturally, carbon nanotubes offer a wide range of advantages, not the least of which are structural strength, unique electrical properties, and efficient conduction of heat. But the Goddard team also chose this material for their lenses because it offers a lightweight, highly stable and easily reproducible option for creating telescope mirrors.

What’s more, mirrors made of carbon-nanotubes do not require polishing, which is a time-consuming and expensive process when it comes to space-based telescopes. The team hopes that this new method will prove useful in creating a new class of low-cost, CubeSat space telescopes, as well as helping to reduce costs when it comes to larger ground-based and space-based telescopes.

Such mirrors would be especially useful in telescopes that use multiple mirror segments (like the Keck Observatory at Mauna Kea and the James Webb Space Telescope). Such mirrors would be a real cost-cutter since they can be easily produced and would eliminate the need for expensive polishing and grinding.

Other potential applications include deep-space communications, improved electronics, and structural materials for spacecraft. Currently, the production of carbon nanotubes is quite limited. But as it becomes more widespread, we can expect this miracle material to be making its way into all aspects of space exploration and research.

Further Reading: NASA