Microbes May Help Astronauts Turn Human Waste Into Food

Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Geoscience researchers at Penn State University are finally figuring out what organic farmers have always known: digestive waste can help produce food. But whereas farmers here on Earth can let microbes in the soil turn waste into fertilizer, which can then be used to grow food crops, the Penn State researchers have to take a different route. They are trying to figure out how to let microbes turn waste directly into food.

There are many difficulties with long-duration space missions, or with lengthy missions to other worlds like Mars. One of the most challenging difficulties is how to take enough food. Food for a crew of astronauts on a 6-month voyage to Mars, and enough for a return trip, weighs a lot. And all that weight has to be lifted into space by expensive rockets.

SpaceX's reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017.  Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX’s reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Carrying enough food for a long voyage in space is problematic. Up until now, the solution for providing that food has been focused on growing it in hydroponic chambers and greenhouses. But that also takes lots of space, water, and energy. And time. It’s not really a solution.

“It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

What the researchers at Penn State, led by Professor of Geosciences Christopher House, are trying to develop, is a method of turning waste directly into an edible, nutritious substance. Their aim is to cut out the middle man, as it were. And in this case, the middle men are plants themselves, like tomatoes, potatoes, or other fruits and vegetables.

We've always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist's illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC
We’ve always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist’s illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC

“We envisioned and tested the concept of simultaneously treating astronauts’ waste with microbes while producing a biomass that is edible either directly or indirectly depending on safety concerns,” said Christopher House, professor of geosciences, Penn State. “It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'”

The Penn State team propose to use specific microorganisms to turn waste directly into edible biomass. And they’re making progress.

At the heart of their work are things called microbial reactors. Microbial reactors are basically vessels designed to maximize surface area for microbes to populate. These types of reactors are used to treat sewage here on Earth, but not to produce an edible biomass.

“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

To test their ideas, the researchers constructed a cylindrical vessel four feet long by four inches in diameter. Inside it, they allowed select microorganisms to come into contact with human waste in controlled conditions. The process was anaerobic, and similar to what happens inside the human digestive tract. What they found was promising.

“Anaerobic digestion is something we use frequently on Earth for treating waste,” said House. “It’s an efficient way of getting mass treated and recycled. What was novel about our work was taking the nutrients out of that stream and intentionally putting them into a microbial reactor to grow food.”

One thing the team discovered is that the process readily produces methane. Methane is highly flammable, so very dangerous on a space mission, but it has other desirable properties when used in food production. It turns out that methane can be used to grow another microbe, called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is used as an animal food. Their conclusion is that the process could produce a nutritious food for astronauts that is 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats.

“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

The process isn’t simple. The anaerobic process involved can produce pathogens very dangerous to people. To prevent that, the team studied ways to grow microbes in either an alkaline environment or a high-heat environment. After raising the system pH to 11, they found a strain of the bacteria Halomonas desiderata that thrived. Halomonas desiderata is 15 percent protein and 7 percent fats. They also cranked the system up to a pathogen-killing 158 degrees Fahrenheit, and found that the edible Thermus aquaticus grew, which is 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats.

Conventional waste treatment plants, like this one in England, take several days to treat waste. The anerobic system tested by the Penn State team treated waste in as little as 13 hours. Image: Nick Allen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Their system is based on modern aquarium systems, where microbes live on the surface of a filter film. The microbes take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids. Then, those fatty acids are converted to methane by other microbes on the same surface.

Speed is a factor in this system. Existing waste management treatment typically takes several days. The team’s system removed 49 to 59 percent of solids in 13 hours.

This system won’t be in space any time soon. The tests were conducted on individual components, as proof of feasibility. A complete system that functioned together still has to be built. “Each component is quite robust and fast and breaks down waste quickly,” said House. “That’s why this might have potential for future space flight. It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.”

The team’s paper was published here, in the journal Life Sciences In Space Research.

A New Kind of Propulsion System That Doesn’t Need Propellant. It Converts Electricity into Thrust and Vice Versa.

The proposed "space-tie" propulsion system being patented by Spanish scientists could be useful on Satellites like the ESA's Sentinel-1, pictured. Image: ESA/ATG
The proposed "space-tie" propulsion system being patented by Spanish scientists could be useful on Satellites like the ESA's Sentinel-1, pictured. Image: ESA/ATG

Some of the best things in science are elegant and simple. A new propulsion system being developed in Spain is both those things, and could help solve a growing problem with Earth’s satellites: the proliferation of space junk.

Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in Spain are patenting a new kind of propulsion system for orbiting satellites that doesn’t use any propellant or consumables. The system is basically a tether, in the form of an aluminum tape a couple kilometers long and a couple inches wide, that trails out from the satellite. The researchers call it a space tie.

“This is a disruptive technology because it allows one to transform orbital energy into electrical energy and vice versa without using any type of consumable”. – Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, UC3M.

The lightweight space tie is rolled up during launch, and once the satellite is in orbit, it’s deployed. Once deployed, the tape can either convert electricity into thrust, or thrust into electricity. The Spanish researchers behind this say that the space-ties will be used in pairs.

The system is based on what is called a “low-work-function” tether. A special coating on the tether has enhanced electron emission properties on receiving sunlight and heat. These special properties allow it to function in two ways. “This is a disruptive technology because it allows one to transform orbital energy into electrical energy and vice versa without using any type of consumable,” said Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering Department at UC3M.

As a satellite loses altitude and gets closer to Earth, the tether converts that thrust-caused-by-gravity into electricity for the spacecraft systems to use. When it comes to orbiting facilities like the International Space Station (ISS), this tether system could solve an annoying problem. Every year the ISS has to burn a significant amount of propellant to maintain its orbit. The tether can generate electricity as it moves closer to Earth, and this electricity could replace the propellant. “With a low- work function tether and the energy provided by the solar panel of the ISS, the atmospheric drag could be compensated without the use of propellant”, said Arriaga.

“Unlike current propulsion technologies, the low-work function tether needs no propellant and it uses natural resources from the space environment such as the geomagnetic field, the ionospheric plasma and the solar radiation.” – Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, UC3M.

For satellites with ample on-board power, the tether would operate in reverse. It would use electricity to provide thrust to the space craft. This is especially useful to satellites near the end of their operational life. Rather than languish in orbit for a long time as space junk, the derelict satellite could be forced to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere where it would burn up harmlessly.

The space-tie system is based on what’s called Lorentz drag. Lorentz drag is an electrodynamic effect. (Electrodynamics enthusiasts can read all about it here.) I won’t go too deeply into it because I’m not a physicist, but the Spanish researchers suggest that the Lorentz drag can be easily observed by watching a magnet fall through a copper tube. Here’s a video.

Space organizations have shown interest in the low-work-function tether, and the Spanish team is getting the word out to experts in the USA, Japan, and Europe. The next step is the manufacture of prototypes. “The biggest challenge is its manufacturing because the tether should gather very specific optical and electron emission properties,” says Sánchez Arriaga.

The Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness has awarded the Spanish team a grant to investigate materials for the system. The team has also submitted a proposal to the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET-Open) consortium for funding. “The FET-OPEN project would be foundational because it considers the manufacturing and characterization of the first low-work-function tether and the development of a deorbit kit based on this technology to be tested on a future space mission. If funded, it would be a stepping stone to the future of low-work-function tethers in space” Sanchez Arriaga concluded.

In this video, Gonzalo Sanchez Arriaga explains how the system works. If you don’t speak Spanish, just turn on subtitles.

I Still ♥ the ISS: More Reasons to Love the International Space Station

The International Space Station as seen by the departing STS-134 crew on May 29, 2011. Credit: NASA

Back in 2008, I professed my feelings, bared my soul and told all about how I absolutely was in love the International Space Station. Nine and a half years ago when I wrote that article, titled “I ‘Heart’ the ISS: Ten Reasons to Love the International Space Station,” the ISS was still under construction, only three astronauts/cosmonauts at a time could live on board, and scientific research was sparse. Some people routinely questioned the cost and utility of what some people called an expensive erector set or orbiting white elephant.

Continue reading “I Still ♥ the ISS: More Reasons to Love the International Space Station”

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.

What’s the Difference Between a Rocket and Space Plane? Amazing Hand-Drawn Animations Explain It All

You gotta love Earth’s atmosphere. It basically makes life (as we know it) possible on our planet by providing warmth and air to breathe, as well as protecting us from nasty space things like radiation and smaller asteroids. But for studying space (i.e., astronomy) or coming back to Earth from space, the atmosphere is a pain.

Last year, we introduced you to freelance animator and storyboard artist Stanley VonMedvey, who started creating short, hand-drawn videos to explain a complex topic: how spacecraft work. These videos are wonderfully concise, clear and easy to understand. Plus Stan’s hand-drawn animations are incredible.

His series, “Stan Draws Spaceships” now has a new video that shows the complexities of how spacecraft return to Earth through our atmosphere, comparing the partially reusable Falcon 9 and fully reusable Skylon. Take a look below. Again, the hand-drawn animations are impeccable and Stan’s explanations are just captivating.

I was trying to think of sufficient accolades for Stan’s work, but I can’t do any better than one commentor on Stan’s YouTube Channel. MarsLettuce said, “The attention to detail here is insane. The air intake being shorn off by drag was especially great. The sequence of her hands making the paper plane was subdued, but it added a lot. The characters were really well done, too. I love the reaction of Stan being hit by the paper airplane. It’s hilarious.”

Stan’s earlier videos explain expendable launch vehicles and the space shuttle.

He describes himself as “completely obsessed with and fascinated by space exploration,” and he wants to share what he’s learned over the years about spaceflight.

Stan would like the opportunity and resources to make more videos, and has started a Patreon page to help in this process. Right now, he creates the videos on his own (he told us he uses the time-honored home-recording technique of draping a blanket over his head) in his home office. It takes him roughly 2.5 months to produce a 5 minute episode.

“I’d like to make a lot more videos,” he writes on Patreon, “explaining things like Hohmman transfers and laser propulsion and the construction techniques of O’Neill cylinders. I want to make long form videos (2-3 minutes) that explain a general idea, and short form videos (30 seconds) that cover a single word, like “ballistics” or “reaction control.”

An artist’s conception of Reaction Engines’ Skylon spacecraft. Credit: Reaction Engines

So, check out Stan’s videos and his Patreon page. If you’d like to see more, consider supporting his work. See more of his drawings at his website.

Stephen Hawking Is Going To The Edge Of Space

The VMS Eve (Virgin Mother Ship) carrys VSS Unity (Virgin Spaceship) for its first flight ever over Mojave, CA on Thursday September 8, 2016. Image: Virgin Galactic

Stephen Hawking has spent decades theorizing about the Universe. His thinking on black holes, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and a long list of other topics, has helped shape our understanding of the cosmos. Now it looks like the man who has spent most of his adult life bound to a wheel-chair will travel to the edge of space.

In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Hawking said “Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.” Hawking added that his “three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space.”

Stephen Hawking is one of the premier physicists and theorists of our time. Here he is being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

It’s all thanks to Richard Branson and his VSS Unity spaceship, which is still under development by The Spaceship Company. The Unity is designed to launch not from a rocket pad, but from underneath a carrier aircraft. By eliminating enormously expensive rocket launches from the whole endeavour, Branson hopes to make space more accessible to more people.

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) over the Mojave Desert on 3rd, December 2016. Image: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then released from its carrier aircraft. Its rocket fires for about 1 minute, which accelerates the craft to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, then is shut off. Then, according to Virgin Galactic, passengers will experience a “dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness.”

As the video shows, the spacecraft is still in glide testing phase, where it is carried to altitude, then released. There is no rocket burn, and the craft glides down and lands at its base.

This spaceflight won’t be Hawking’s first experience with weightlessness, however. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Hawking travelled on board Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. At the time, that zero-g flight was in preparation for a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic in 2009. But the development of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft has suffered setbacks, and the 2009 date was not attainable.

Hawking has experienced zero gravity before, when he flew on Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. Image: By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144

Virgin Galactic’s stated aim is to “democratize space,” albeit at a cost of US $250,000 per person. But somehow I doubt that Hawking will be paying. If anyone has earned a free trip into space, it is Dr. Stephen Hawking.

NASA Twins Study Researchers Take Genetic Data To Next Level

NASA is beginning to integrate the results of its twin study on astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. Image: NASA

People who plan and conduct space missions never tire of telling us how hard it is to do things in space.

Our next big goal is getting humans to Mars, and establishing a colony there. There are a multitude of technical and engineering hurdles to be overcome, but we think we can do it.

But the other side of the coin is the physiological hurdles to be overcome. Those may prove to be much more challenging to deal with. NASA’s twins study is poised to add an enormous amount of data to our growing body of knowledge on the effects of space travel on human beings.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

Astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly are the basis of NASA’s study. Scott spent a year in space, returning to Earth on March 1st 2016, after spending 340 days aboard the ISS. Mark, himself a retired astronaut, remained on Earth during Scott’s year in space, providing a baseline for studying the effects on the human body of such a prolonged period of time away from Earth.

In February of 2016, NASA released preliminary results of the study. Now, the team studying the results of the twins study has started integrating the data. The way they’re doing this sets it apart from other studies.

“No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail.” – Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine.

Typically, individual studies are released to appropriate journals more or less one at a time. But in the twins study, the data will be integrated and summarized before individual papers are published on separate themes. The idea is that taken together, their impact on our understanding of prolonged time in space will be much greater.

“The beauty of this study is when integrating rich data sets of physiological, neurobehavioral and molecular information, one can draw correlations and see patterns,” said Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, who is creating the integrated database, recording results and looking for correlations. “No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail. Most researchers combine maybe two to three types of data but this study is one of the few that is collecting many different types of data and an unprecedented amount of information.”

“Each investigation within the study complements the other.” – Brinda Rana, Ph.D., U of C, San Diego School of Medicine

Mike Snyder, Ph.D, is the head of a team of people at Stanford that will work to synthesize the data. There are roughly three steps in the overall process:

  1. Individual researchers in areas like cognition, biochemistry, and immunology will analyze and compile their data then share their results with the Stanford team.
  2. The Stanford team will then further integrate those results into larger data sets.
  3. Those larger data sets will then be reviewed and analyzed to confirm and modify the initial findings.

“There are a lot of firsts with this study and that makes it exciting,” said Brinda Rana, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “A comparative study with one twin in space and one on Earth has never been done before. Each investigation within the study complements the other.”

NASA compares the twins study, and the new integrated method of handling all the results, to conducting a symphony. Each study is like an instrument, and instead of each one playing a solo, they will be added into a greater whole. The team at Stanford is like the conductor. If you’ve ever listened to an orchestra, you know how powerful that can be.

“The human systems in the body are all intertwined which is why we should view the data in a holistic way,” said Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., NASA manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. He conducts biochemical profiles on astronauts and his research is targeted to specific metabolites, end products of various biological pathways and processes.

“It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.” – Chris Mason, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Physiology and Biophysics Weill Cornell Medicine

Chris Mason Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medicine said, “Both the universe and the human body are complicated systems and we are studying something hard to see. It’s like having a new flashlight that illuminates the previously dark gears of molecular interactions. It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.”

Scientists involved with the twins study are very clearly excited about this new approach. Having twin astronauts is an extraordinary opportunity, and will advance our understanding of spaceflight on human physiology enormously.

“There is no doubt, the learnings from integrating our data will be priceless,” said Emmanuel Mignot, M.D., Ph.D., director of Center for Sleep Science and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. He studies the immune system and is enthusiastic to study specific immune cell populations because many of the other immune studies focus only on general factors.

A summary of the early results should be out by early 2018, or possible late 2017. Individual papers on more detailed themes will follow shortly.

New ‘Selfie’ MicroSatellite Captures Images of Chinese Space Station

Banxing-2 snaps Tiangong-2 and Shenzhou-11 using a fisheye camera. (Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Here’s a great new view of China’s Tiangong II space station, taken by a new ‘selfie’ satellite. The Banxing-2 satellite is about the size of a desktop printer and was released from the station on Sunday. It has been nicknamed the “Selfie Stick” by Chinese officials and is taking pictures of the station and the docked Shenzhou XI spacecraft. The Chinese astronauts who boarded the station last week aren’t just joining the selfie craze; the 25 megapixel camera with wide-angle and infrared imagers has a specific job.

“The companion satellite monitors the conditions of Tiangong II and Shenzhou XI all the time, which is helpful in detecting failures,” said Chen Hongyu, chief engineer of the satellite program and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Micro-satellite Innovation Institute.

The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.
The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.

The microsatellite as three solar panels, so can generate enough power to adjust its orbit to shoot pictures of the lab and spacecraft. Its predecessor, Banxing-1, accomplished the same mission for Shenzhou VII in 2008. The Chinese Academy of Sciences says the new model is smaller and has a higher capacity.

Now well into their 30-day mission, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong boarded China’s second version of its “Heavenly Palace” last week. They launched Monday, October 17 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on a Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou-11 completed a fully automated approach and docking to Tiangong-2 on Tuesday.

During their mission, the two crew members will perform experiments from 14 different areas including biology, space life science and technological demonstrations. They have set up plant cultivation and growing experiments and have six silkworms on board for a student-based study to see how silkworms produce silk in microgravity. The crew is also doing medical testing on themselves using Tiangong II’s on board ultrasound equipment to scan their cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. They’ll also be checking for bone and muscle degradation and track any changes to their eyesight. NASA and ESA has discovered that the majority of astronauts doing long-duration space flights on the International Space Station have suffered various kinds of vision problems while in space, or upon their return.

This 30-day medium duration mission is China’s longest space mission to date, and the main task of the Tiangong crew is to help prepare for longer future missions on a larger, modular space station that, according to reports, China hopes to launch by 2018.

Further reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, Spaceflight 101.

President Obama Puts US All In For Mars

President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza Public Domain

In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama has made a bold statement in favor of the US getting to Mars. Obama didn’t mince any words in his opinion piece written for CNN. He said that America’s next goal in space is “…sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

President Obama has long been a proponent of a strong presence in space for the US, and of the science and technology that supports those efforts. He has argued for healthy NASA budgets in his time, and under his administration, NASA has reached some major milestones.

“Last year alone, NASA discovered flowing water on Mars and evidence of ice on one of Jupiter’s moons, and we mapped Pluto — more than 3 billion miles away — in high-resolution,” Obama said. He also mentioned the ongoing successful hunt for exoplanets, and the efforts to understand asteroids.

Some of his work in support of space and science in general has been more symbolic. His annual White House Science Fairs in particular. He was the first president to hold these fairs, and he hosted 6 of them during his 8 years in office.

Presidents go different directions once they leave office. Some keep a low profile (Bush Jr.), some get targeted for assassination (Bush Sr.), and some become advocates for humanitarian efforts and global peace (Jimmy Carter.) But Obama made it clear that his efforts to promote America’s efforts in space won’t end when his presidency ends. “This week, we’ll convene some of America’s leading scientists, engineers, innovators and students in Pittsburgh to dream up ways to build on our progress and find the next frontiers,” Obama said.

In his piece, Obama gave a laundry list of the USA’s achievements in space. He also pointed out that “Just five years ago, US companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market.” Now they own a third of that market. And, according to Obama, they won’t stop there.

In 2010 he set a goal for American space efforts: to reach Mars by the 2030s. “The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit. I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” He didn’t elaborate on this in his opinion piece, but it will be interesting to hear more.

Other presidents have come out strongly in favor of efforts in space. The first one was Eisenhower, and Obama mentioned him in his piece. Eisenhower is the one who created NASA in 1958, though it was called NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at the time. This put America’s space efforts in civilian control rather than military.

President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)
President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)

President Kennedy asked Congress in 1961 to commit to the Apollo program, an effort to get a man on the Moon before the 60s ended. Apollo achieved that, of course, but with only a few months to spare. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was a staunch supporter of NASA’s Apollo Program, especially in the wake of disaster.

In 1967 the entire Apollo 1 crew was killed in a fire while testing the craft on its launch pad. The press erupted after that, and Congress began to question the Apollo Program, but Johnson stood firmly in NASA’s corner.

Like some other Presidents before him, Obama has always been a good orator. That was in full view when he ended his piece with these words: “Someday, I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders. We’ll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time.”

The focus has really been on Mars lately, and with Obama’s continued support, maybe humans will make it to Mars in the next decade or two. Then, from the surface of that planet, we can do what we’ve always done: continue to look to the stars with a sense of wonder.

ESA Prepares Revolutionary Air Breathing Rocket Engine

The SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) could revolutionize access to space. Image: Reaction Engines
The SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) could revolutionize access to space. Image: Reaction Engines

If new rocket engines being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) are successful, they could revolutionize rocket technology and change the way we get to space. The engine, called the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), is designed to use atmospheric air in the early flight stages, before switching to conventional rocket mode for the final ascent to space. If all goes well, this new air-breathing rocket could be ready for test firings in about four years.

Conventional rockets have to carry an on-board oxidizer such as liquid oxygen, which is combined with fuel in the rocket’s combustion chamber. This means rockets can require in excess of 250 tons of liquid oxygen in order to function. Once this oxygen is consumed in the first stages, these used up stages are discarded, creating massive waste and expense. (Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing re-usable rockets to help circumvent this problem, but they’re still conventional rockets.)

Conventional rockets carry their own oxygen because its temperature and pressure can be controlled. This guarantees the performance of the rocket, but requires complicated systems to do so. SABRE will eliminate the need for carrying most on-board oxygen, but this is not easy to do.

SABRE’s challenge is to compress the atmospheric oxygen to about 140 atmospheres before introducing it into the engine’s combustion chambers. But compressing the oxygen to that degree raises its temperature so much that it would melt the engines. The solution to that is to cool the air with a pre-cooling heat exchanger, to the point where it’s almost a liquid. At that point, a turbine based on standard jet engine technology can compress the air to the required operating temperature.

This means that while SABRE is in Earth’s atmosphere, it uses air to burn its hydrogen fuel, rather than liquid oxygen. This gives it an 8 x improvement in propellant consumption. Once SABRE has reached about 25 km in altitude, where the air is thinner, it switches modes and operates as a standard rocket. By the time it switches modes, it’s already about 20% of the way into Earth orbit.

Like a lot of engineering challenges, understanding what needs to be done is not the hard part. Actually developing these technologies is extremely difficult, even though many people just assume engineers will be successful. The key for Reaction Engines Ltd, the company developing SABRE, is to develop the light weight heat exchangers at the heart of the engine.

Heat exchangers are common in industry, but these heat exchangers have to cool incoming air from 1000 Celsius to -150 Celsius in less than 1/100th of a second, and they have to do it while preventing frost from forming. They are extremely light, at about 100 times lighter than current technology, which will allow them to be used in aerospace for the first time. Some of the lightness factor of these new heat exchanges stems from the wall thickness of the tubing, which is less than 30 microns. That’s less than the thickness of a human hair.

Reaction Engines Limited says that these heat exchangers will have the same impact on aerospace propulsion systems that silicone chips had on computing.

A new funding agreement with the ESA will provide Reaction Engines with 10 million Euros for continued development of SABRE. This will add to the 50 million Pounds that the UK Space Agency has already contributed. That 50 million Pound investment was the result of a favorable viability review of SABRE that the ESA performed in 2010.

In 2012 the pre-cooler, a vital component of SABRE, was successfully tested at Reaction Engines facility in Oxfordshire, UK. Image: ESA/Reaction Engines
In 2012 the pre-cooler, a vital component of SABRE, was successfully tested at Reaction Engines facility in Oxfordshire, UK. Image: ESA/Reaction Engines

IN 2012, the pre-cooler and the heat exchangers were tested. After that came more R&D, including the development of altitude-compensating rocket nozzles, thrust chamber cooling, and air intakes.

Now that the feasibility of SABRE has been strengthened, Reaction Engines wants to build a ground demonstrator engine by 2020. If the continued development of SABRE goes well, and if testing by 2020 is successful, then these Air Breathing rocket engines will be in a position to truly revolutionize access to space.

In ESA’s words, “ESA are confident that a ground test of a sub-scale engine can be successfully performed to demonstrate the flight regime and cycle and will be a critical milestone in the development of this program and a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide.”

Bring it on.