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

The House Makes NASA A Counteroffer It Probably Can’t Refuse

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)

It looks like mostly good news in NASA’s budget for 2017. The Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee is the House of Representatives body that oversees NASA finances, and they have released details on how they would like to fund NASA in 2017. According to their plan, NASA’s budget would be $19.5 billion. That amount is $500 million more than President Obama had asked for, and $200 million above what the Senate had proposed.

If the bill is approved by the House of Representatives, then this budget would be NASA’s largest in 6 years (adjusted for inflation.)

While it is good news overall, some projects that were in NASA’s plans will not be funded, according to this bill.

On the chopping block is the Asteroid Re-Direct Mission (ARM). ARM is an ambitious robotic mission to visit a large asteroid near Earth, collect a boulder weighing several tons from its surface, and put it into a stable orbit around a Moon. Once the boulder was in a stable orbit, astronauts would visit it to explore and collect samples for return to Earth. NASA had touted this mission as an important step to advancing the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.

ARM was an intriguing and ambitious mission, but it looks like it will be unfunded. The sub-committee explained that decision by saying “The Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars,” adding that “…the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars.”

Another area seeing its funding cut is the Earth Science division. That division would lose $231 million compared to 2016.

There are winners in this bill, though. The Planetary Science division would receive a $215 million boost in 2017, compared to 2016. This means a 2022 mission to Europa is still on the books, and NASA can select two more Discovery class missions.

Beyond the numbers, the Commerce, Justice, and Science sub-committee also signalled its support for a human presence on the Moon. The sub-committee stated that “NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This is fantastic news.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion program will also continue to receive healthy funding. These two programs are key to NASA’s long term plans, so their stable funding is good news.

There are some groovy technologies that will receive seed funding in this proposed budget.

One of these is a tiny helicopter that would work in conjunction with a rover on the surface of Mars. This solar-powered unit would fly ahead of a rover, acting as a scout to locate hazards and places of interest. This project would receive $15 million.

With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA
With a body the size of a tissue box, this helicopter would partner with a Martian rover, and help the rover cover more ground in a day. Image: NASA

Another new technology receiving seed money is the Starshade. The Starshade would augment the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST is a space telescope designed to study dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. The Starshade would be separate from the WFIRST, and by blocking the light from a distant star, would allow WFIRST to image planets orbiting that star. The goal would be to detect the presence of oxygen, methane, and other chemicals associated with life, in the atmosphere of exoplanets.

An artist's illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA
An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA

The funding bill also directs NASA to consider forms of propulsion that could propel a craft at 10% of the speed of light. This includes Bussard ramjets, matter-antimatter reactors, beamed energy systems, and anti-matter catalyzed fusion reaction. The bill asks that within a year of being passed, NASA creates a draft reporting addressing interstellar propulsion, and that a roadmap be put in place for further development of these systems. The hope is that one of these systems will be in place for a trip to Alpha Centauri in 2069, which will be the 100 year anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing.

It should be noted that these numbers are not approved yet. Some of these numbers go back and forth between the levels of government before they are finalized. It would take a lesson on governance structure to explain how that all works, but suffice it to say that although they’re not finalized, yet, things look good overall for NASA.

The Bigelow Expandable Module Is About To Blow Up

This computer rendering shows the Bigelow Expanded Activity Module in its fully expanded configuration. Image: NASA

Update:

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module did not fully expand today, May 26th, as planned. Engineers are meeting to try to understand why the module didn’t fully expand. They are evaluating data from the expansion to determine what has happened. If the data says its okay to resume expansion, that could happen as early as tomorrow, May 27th.

A previously scheduled teleconference has been postponed, and NASA will update when a decision on expansion is made.

People who aren’t particularly enthusiastic about space science and space exploration often accuse those of us who are, of “living in a bubble.” There are so many seemingly intractable problems here on Earth, so they say, that it’s foolish to spend so much money and time on space exploration. But if all goes well with the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) at the ISS this week, astronauts may well end up living in a sort of bubble.

Expandable, inflatable habitats could bring about a quiet revolution in space exploration, and the BEAM is leading that revolution. Because it’s much more compact and much lighter than rigid steel and aluminum structures, the cost of building them and launching them into space is much lower. The benefits of lower costs for building them and launching them are obvious.

NASA first announced plans to test the BEAM back in 2013. They awarded a $17.8 million contract to Bigelow Aerospace to provide the expandable module, with the idea of testing it for a two-year period.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow stand in front of the BEAM in January, 2013. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow stand in front of the BEAM in January, 2013. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

When the contract was announced, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said, “The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods. This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation.”

Though no astronauts will be living in the module, it will be tested to see how it withstands the rigours of space. ISS astronauts will enter the module periodically, but for the most part, the module will be monitored remotely. Of particular interest to NASA is the module’s ability to withstand solar radiation, debris impact, and temperature extremes.

The BEAM was launched in April aboard a SpaceX Dragon Capsule, itself carried aloft by a SpaceX Falcon rocket. Personnel aboard the ISS used the station’s robotic arm to unpack the BEAM and attach it to the station. That procedure went well, and now the BEAM is ready for inflation.

This sped-up animation shows the ISS's robotic arm removing the uninflated BEAM from the Dragon capsule and attaching it to the station. Credit: NASA
This sped-up animation shows the ISS’s robotic arm removing the uninflated BEAM from the Dragon capsule and attaching it to the station. Credit: NASA

How exactly the BEAM will behave while it’s being inflated is uncertain. The procedure will be done slowly and methodically, with the team exercising great caution during inflation.

Once inflated, the BEAM will expand to almost five times its travelling size. While packed inside the Dragon capsule, the module is 8 ft. in diameter by 7 ft. in length. After inflation, it will measure 10 ft. in diameter and 13 ft. in length, and provide 16 cubic meters (565 cubic ft.) of habitable volume. That’s about as large as a bedroom.

After inflation, the BEAM will sit for about a week before any astronauts enter it. After that, the plan is to visit the module 2 or 3 times per year to check conditions inside. During those visits, astronauts will also get sensor data from equipment inside the BEAM.

Some, including Bigelow CEO Robert Bigelow, are hopeful that after the first six months or so, the timeline can be accelerated a little. If NASA approves it, the BEAM could be used for science experiments at that time.

As for Bigelow itself, they are already working on the B330, a much larger expandable habitat that promises even greater impact durability and radiation protection than the BEAM. Bigelow hopes that the B330 could be used on the surface of the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit.

The BEAM will never attract the attention that rocket launches and Mars rovers do. But their impact on space exploration will be hard to deny. And when naysayers accuse us of living in a bubble, we can smile and say, “We’re working on it.”

New Horizons Sends Back First Science On Distant Kuiper Belt Object

This artist's impression shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

Even the most curmudgeonly anti-space troll has to admit that the New Horizons mission to Pluto has been an overwhelming success.

It’s not like New Horizons discovered life or anything, but it did bring an otherwise cold, distant lump to life for humanity. Vivid images and detailed scientific data revealed Pluto as a dynamic, changing world, with an active surface and an atmosphere. And we haven’t even received all of the data from New Horizons’ mission to Pluto yet.

Fresh off its historic visit to Pluto, New Horizons is headed for the Kuiper Belt, and just sent back its first science on one of the denizens of the distant belt of objects. The target in this case is 1994 JR1, a 145 km (90 mi.) wide Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). that orbits the Sun at a distance greater than 5 billion km. (3 billion mi.) New Horizons has now observed 1994 JR1 twice, and the team behind the mission has garnered new insights into this KBO based on these observations.

The spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured images of 1994 JR1 on April 7th-8th from a distance of 111 million km. (69 million mi.). That’s far closer than the images New Horizons captured in November 2015 from a distance of 280 million km (170 million miles).

This image, taken with the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows 2 of the 20 images captured in April. The moving dots are 1994 JR1, shown against a backdrop of stationary stars. The circular object in the top left of the image is a reflective artifact of the camera itself, showing LORRI's three support arms. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image, taken with the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows 2 of the 20 images captured in April. The moving dots are 1994 JR1, shown against a backdrop of stationary stars. The circular object in the top left of the image is a reflective artifact of the camera itself, showing LORRI’s three support arms. Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons science team member Simon Porter, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder Colorado, commented on the importance of these images. “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO,” Porter said.

Porter added that this accurate measurement of the KBO’s orbit allows New Horizons science team members to quash the idea that JR1 is a quasi-satellite of Pluto.

The team was also able to determine, by measuring the light reflected from the surface, that JR1’s rotational period is only 5.4 hours. That’s fast for a KBO. John Spencer, another New Horizons science team member from SwRI, said “This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”

Variations in the brightness of light reflected from the  surface of 1994 JR1 allowed science team members to pinpoint the object's  rotation period at 5.4 hours.    Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Variations in the brightness of light reflected from the surface of 1994 JR1 allowed science team members to pinpoint the object’s rotation period at 5.4 hours.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

KBOs are ancient remnants of the early days of the Solar System. Whereas the inner regions of the Solar System were largely swept clean as the planets formed, the Kuiper Belt remained mostly as it is, untouched by the gravity of the planets.

There are trillions of objects in this cold, distant part of the Solar System. The Kuiper Belt itself spans a distance that is 30 to 50 times greater than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It’s similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but Kuiper Belt objects are icy, whereas asteroid belt objects are rocky, for the most part.

The New Horizons team has requested a mission extension, and if that extension is approved, the target is already chosen. In August 2015, NASA selected the KBO 2014 MU69, which resides in an orbit almost a billion miles beyond Pluto. There were two potential destinations for the spacecraft after it departed Pluto, and 2014 MU69 was recommended by the New Horizons team, and chosen by NASA.

If New Horizons' mission is extended, this is the path it will take to its next destination, 2014 MU69. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker)
If New Horizons’ mission is extended, this is the path it will take to its next destination, 2014 MU69. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker)

Choosing New Horizons’ next target early was important for fuel use. Fuel conservation allows the spacecraft to perform the maneuvers necessary to reach 2014 MU69. If all goes well, New Horizons should reach its next target by January 2019.

According to Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, there are good reasons to visit 2014 MU69. “2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” he said. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

The Decadal Survey in 2003 strongly recommended that flybys of Pluto and small KBOs should be conducted. The KBO is an unexplored region, and these flybys will allow us to sample the diversity of objects in the belt.

If New Horizons makes it to its next target, 2014 MU69, and delivers the types of results it has so far in its journey, it will be an unprecedented success. The kind of success that will make it harder and harder to be a curmudgeonly anti-space troll.

Wait. Who am I kidding.

Haters gonna hate.

Bio-Mimicry and Space Exploration

A close-up of the spiral pattern in a sunflower. (Image Credit: Vishwas Krishna, unaltered, CC2.0)

“Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain.

-Leonardo DaVinci

What DaVinci was talking about, though it wasn’t called it at the time, was biomimicry. Biomimicry is the practice of using designs from the natural world to solve technological and engineering problems. Were he alive today, there’s no doubt that Mr. DaVinci would be a big proponent of biomimicry.

Nature is more fascinating the deeper you look into it. When we look deeply into nature, we’re peering into a laboratory that is over 3 billion years old, where solutions to problems have been implemented, tested, and revised over the course of evolution. That’s why biomimicry is so elegant: on Earth, nature has had more than 3 billion years to solve problems, the same kinds of problems we need to solve to advance in space exploration.

The more powerful our technology gets, the deeper we can see into nature. As greater detail is revealed, more tantalizing solutions to engineering problems present themselves. Scientists who look to nature for solutions to engineering and design problems are reaping the rewards, and are making headway in several areas related to space exploration.

Continue reading “Bio-Mimicry and Space Exploration”

Book Review:”Interplanetary Outpost: The Human and Technological Challenges of Exploring the Outer Planets”

While many visionaries now focus upon Mars as the next destination for humankind to visit, some have an even longer view. In the book, “Interplanetary Outpost: The Human and Technological Challenges of Exploring the Outer Planets,” you can take a ride with the author Erik Seedhouse to possibly the next most habitable body in our solar system. You can visit Callisto in the Jovian system. However, on reading this book you will quickly discover that it won’t be a simple journey there and back again.

Imagine yourself wanting to get involved with that first trip to Callisto. What would you do? Where would you begin? Well, this book could be a really good high level overview for the requirements for your endeavour. 

First, it reminds you on why Callisto is the best target. Here it draws upon earlier NASA efforts, including RASC-Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts and HOPE-Human Outer Planet Exploration. It also continually references recent movies like Avatar and Pandorum as supporting work.  With the references aside, the book settles down and focuses you upon its prime directive, a one-off exploration endeavor, even smaller than the multiple missions of Apollo to the Moon. Therefore, much of the book’s information serves to satisfy this one-off.

As you read, you will discover more and more requirements and pre-conditions. For example, according to this book, you will be departing from a spaceport parked in CIS-Lunar orbit. You will travel on the optimal path to arrive at Callisto without hitting Jupiter or being affected by its radiation fields. You will use electrical onboard power from a nuclear generation system. Your craft will be powered by a variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket. Your body will be suspended cryogenically on the flight. Your body will be filled with nano-biomechanical devices so that you are in functional shape when you arrive. An onboard computer (not named HAL) will sustain both your sleeping body and the spacecraft on its multiyear journey. And so the book’s list of pre-conditions continues on. Thus, as you can well imagine, the book takes you along a path that perhaps is more akin to science fiction than science fact even though it argues that the technologies are all nearly-here! Topping this list is the submersible that launches you into the ice-covered oceans of Callisto. In any case, humankind will have to do a huge amount of prior development before you ever get to this Jovian moon; at least according to this book.

The book’s reliance upon un-proven or even non-existent technology is what will likely either make or break it for you. In effect, the book reads as if the author accumulated a large number of scientific research papers and turned them into a comprehensive, very entertaining prose for the general audience. If you want to be entertained, then this book is for you. If you want to get into a bit more of the nitty gritty, well then you may be less entertained. For example, the book has an expectation that explorers on Callisto will utilize GPS receivers to help them navigate. But, there is no mention of a GPS satellite constellation orbiting Callisto. And what about cryogenics? While the book does mentions some ongoing research today, we certainly don’t consider it mainstream. You may learn of new words like ‘respirocytes’. This knowledge could serve you well at cocktail parties but may not get you much headway at the next meeting of the local astronomical society. So, this reliance upon un-proven or non-existent technology should be kept in mind before you read this book.

However, at one time, some people were imaginative enough, or brave enough, to envision humankind doing more than staying upon planet Earth. Sure the Moon is close and Mars is apparently only slightly further. But there’s a whole universe out there just waiting for us. Are you sure what might be the best path for our species? Take a read of Erik Seedhouse’s book “Interplanetary Outpost – The Human and Technological Challenges of Exploring the Outer Planets”. It might change your perspective as it takes you on a ride the likes of which will never have been seen on Earth before.

This book is available from Springer.

Learn more about the author Erik Seedhouse at Astronauts4Hire.org

Why Can’t We Design the Perfect Spacesuit?

So far, every spacesuit humans have utilized has been designed with a specific mission and purpose in mind. As of yet, there’s been no universal or “perfect” spacesuit that would fit every need. For example, the US ACES “pumpkin” suits and the Russian Sokol are only for launch and reentry and can’t be used for spacewalks. And the Apollo A7L suits were designed with hard soled boots for astronauts to walk on the Moon, while the current NASA EMU and the Russian Orlan are designed for use in space, but with soft soled booties so as not to damage the exterior of the space station.

What would constitute the perfect spacesuit that could be used for any mission? It would have to be lightweight while being impervious to rips, impacts and radiation, but also be flexible, fit multiple sizes, and be comfortable enough to be worn for long periods of time.

With those specifications in mind, is it possible to create the perfect spacesuit?

Spacesuit and Spacewalk History
An astronaut using NASA’s current EMU spacewalking suit, outside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

“Designing a spacesuit turns into a battle between protection and mobility,” said NASA astronaut trainer Robert Frost in an article on Quora. “The more we try to protect the wearer, the less mobile they become. The more mobile we make them, the less protected they are.”

The perfect spacesuit would be, to quote Elon Musk, “badass.”

That’s the terminology the SpaceX used in negotiations with suit-making companies to create the pressure suit for SpaceX’s future commercial passengers. SpaceX is now designing their own suit, and Musk said SpaceX is looking for not just utility but esthetics, too.

“It needs to both look like a 21st-century space suit and work well,” he said during a reddit AMA.

But even with SpaceX’s ‘badass’ suit, they are designing with one purpose in mind.

And there are obstacles to having a “badass space suit design,” wrote Eric Sofge in an article in Popular Science. “A launch-entry suit is ungainly, an oversize one-piece embedded with rigid interfaces for the helmet and gloves, and enough room to inflate, basketball-like, when pres­surized—especially in the seat, so an astronaut isn’t forced to stand up.”

New Ideas

One of the best hopes on the horizon is a “shrink-wrap” type of spacesuit that MIT has been developing. It is a lightweight, form-fitting, flexible spacesuit — a la Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager— lined with tiny, muscle like coils.

Dava Newman wearing the biosuit. Image credit: Donna Coveney
Dava Newman wearing the biosuit. Image credit: Donna Coveney

“With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” said one of the developers, Dava Newman. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials. … Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility, and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration.”

MIT is using a nickel-titanium shape-memory alloy and they are continuing to test ideas. Some problems with this suit include the difficulty of putting on such a tight suit in a zero-gravity environment and how a gas-pressurized helmet can be connected to the compression-pressurized suit.

The NASA Z-2 suit will incorporate the "technology" design the public voted on. Credit: NASA
The NASA Z-2 suit will incorporate the “technology” design the public voted on. Credit: NASA

NASA recently revealed the winner of a public-voted spacesuit design called the Z-2. While it looks a bit like Buzz Lightyear’s fictional suit, it has bearings in the joints that make more flexible than NASA’s current EMU. It also has a rear-entry port, allowing it to be docked to the side of a mobile transporter or habitat, essentially turning the suit into its own air lock. This helps to avoid bringing in abrasive soil and dust such as lunar regolith Martian soil. NASA is currently testing the Z-2 prototype with plans to develop a better suit, the Z-3. If it works well, the Z-3 might be used in a space walk from the International Space Station by 2017.

So, still, the perfect spacesuit eludes us.

But here are some other additions that would make the perfect spacesuit:

Self-healing: Currently, having multiple layers is the best way to defend against rips or tears, which can be fatal in the vacuum of space. But MIT’s body suit would utilize mechanical counterpressure to counteract a rip, and engineers at ILC Dover are looking into integrating self-healing materials, such as polymers embedded with microencapsulated chemicals that would create a foam to heal a torn suit.

Spacesuit Glove.  Courtesy of Johnson Space Center
Spacesuit Glove. Courtesy of Johnson Space Center
Better gloves: gloves have been one of the hardest things to design in spacesuits. Making a glove that is both flexible and protective is a challenge. Astronaut Duane Carey compared spacewalks to trying to fix your car while wearing winter mittens. Astronauts have had skin rubbed until it bleeds and have lost fingernails because of how the current gloves wear. NASA is constantly working on better gloves.

Augmented Vision: Currently, NASA’s polycarbonate helmets could be confused with fishbowls. One material that could be used for future helmets is a clear ceramic called ALON, which is thinner than bulletproof glass and three times as strong. Another addition could be an internal heads-up display — like ones used by F-16 pilots – to provide data and information.

The cooling undergarment used under NASA's EMU spacesuit. Credit: NASA.
The cooling undergarment used under NASA’s EMU spacesuit. Credit: NASA.

A better cooling system: Current suits have “underwear” with about 300 feet of plastic tubing that circulate waters to draw away body heat. Purdue University engineers are developing a polymer using glass fibers coated with thermoelectric nanocrystals that absorb heat and discharge electricity.

Artificial Gravity: Remember the magnetic boots worn in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Insurrection? The University of Massachusetts is developing a dry adhesive that could help astronauts and those pesky floating tools to “stick” to surfaces. It is made of a carbon fiber weave and mimics the skin and tendon structure of gecko feet. Another idea — while not quite the same – is a way to counter muscle and bone atrophy in zero-G: Draper Labs are developing gyroscopes the could be attached to the arms and legs of spacesuits that could provide resistance similar to the force of gravity on Earth.

Long-life Battery Power: One issue for long spacewalks is having enough battery power. Michigan Tech is developing units that can convert movement into electricity. Also, Elon Musk might have some ideas for long-lasting batteries…

So, while many entities are working on ideas and concepts, the perfect spacesuit has yet to be developed. If humans are going to go to an asteroid, back to the Moon, to Mars or on a mission to deep space, we’ll need a suit as close to perfect as possible.

Further reading:
MIT’s ‘shrink-wrapped’ spacesuit
The Deep Space Suit: Popular Science
Factors Considered in the Design of a Spacesuit: Quora
NASA’s Z-2 Suit