Hawking Supports Tiny Spacecraft To Alpha Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

We know that Earth will die.

Even if we beat global warming, and survive long enough to face and survive the next ice age, Earth will still die. Even if we build a peaceful civilization, protect the planet from asteroids, fight off mutant plagues and whatever else comes our way, life on Earth will die. No matter what we do, the Sun will reach the end of its life, and render Earth uninhabitable.

So reaching for the stars is imperative. What sounds unrealistic to a great many people is a matter of practicality for people knowledgeable about space. To survive, we must have more than Earth.

A project launched by billionaire Yuri Milner, and backed by Mark Zuckerberg, intends to send tiny spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system. With an expert group assembled to gauge the feasibility, and with the support of eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking, this idea is gaining traction.

Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than hyperbole: it's essential to the survival of the human species. He's smart. We should listen to him.
Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than dreamy space talk: it’s essential to the survival of the human species. He’s smart. We should listen to him.

The distance to the Centauri system is enormous: 4.3 light years, or 1.34 parsecs. The project plans to use lasers to propel the craft, which should mean the travel time would be approximately 30 years, rather than the 30,000 year travel time that current technology restricts us to.

Of course, there are still many technological hurdles to overcome. The laser propulsion system itself is still only a nascent idea. But theoretically it’s pretty sound, and if it can be mastered, should be able to propel space vehicles at close to relativistic speeds.

There are other challenges, of course. The tiny craft will need robust solar sails as part of the propulsion system. And any instruments and cameras would have to be miniaturized, as would any communication equipment to send data back to Earth. But in case you haven’t been paying attention, humans have a pretty good track record of miniaturizing electronics.

Though the craft proposed are tiny, no larger than a microchip, getting them to the Alpha Centauri system is a huge step. Who knows what we’ll learn? But if we’re ever to explore another solar system, it has to start somewhere. And since astronomers think it’s possible that the Centauri system could have potentially habitable planets, it’s a great place to start.

April 12, 1961: The First Human in Space

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to break free of Earth's gravity and enter space. Credit: Russian Archives

On April 12th, 1961, the first human being broke free of the gravity bond with Earth, and orbited the planet.

Though most everyone is familiar with the American Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon, what it took to get there, and the “One small step…” of Neil Armstrong, fewer people are familiar with Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first human in space. He orbited Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft for 108 minutes.

Gagarin became an international celebrity at the time. He received the USSR’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Quite an honor, and quite an achievement for someone who, as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of Russia by living in a tiny mud hut with those members of his family who were not deported for slave labour by the Germans.

The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was in full swing at the time of Gagarin’s flight, and only one month after Gagarin’s historic journey, American astronaut Alan Shepard reached space. But Shepard’s journey was only a 15 minute sub-orbital flight.

Gagarin only has one space flight to his credit, aboard the Vostok 1 in 1961. He did serve as back-up crew for the Soyuz 1 mission though. Gagarin was a test pilot before becoming a cosmonaut, and he died while piloting a Mig-15 fighter jet in 1968.

Space travel in our age is full of ‘firsts.’ It’s the nature of our times. But there can only ever be one first person to leave Earth, and that accomplishment will echo down the ages. Scores of people have been into space now. Their accomplishments are impressive, and they deserve recognition.

But this day belongs to Yuri Gagarin.

It’s Going To Be A Blast! First RS-25 Flight Engine Test Set For March

RS-25 engine #2059 being delivered to the test stand at Stennis Space Center. Image: NASA/SSC.

NASA is about to reach another milestone in the development of its Space Launch System (SLS.) The SLS is designed to take humans on future deep space missions, and the heart of the system is the RS-25 engine. March 10th will be the first test of this flight-model engine, which will be the most powerful rocket in the world, once in its final configuration.

SLS is the future of space flight for NASA. It’s planned uses include missions to Mars and to an asteroid. The rockets for the system have to be powerful, and they have to have a proven track record. The RS-25 fits the bill: they are a high-performance system that has seen much use.

The  RS-25 has been used on over 135 shuttle missions, and they have seen over 1 million seconds of hot-fire time during ground testing. For the SLS, four RS-25s will be used to generate over 2 million pounds of thrust, and they will operate in conjunction with two solid rocket boosters.

“This year is all about collecting the data we need to adapt these proven engines for SLS’s first flight,” says Steve Wafford, the SLS Engines Manager. The team conducted a series of tests on a developmental RS-25 engine last year, but this is the first one that will fly.

Ronnie Rigney is the RS-25 project manager at the Stennis Space Center, where the tests are being conducted. “Every test is important, but there really is a different energy level associated with flight engines. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get knowing you’re going to see that engine lift off into the sky one day soon. It’s a very exciting time for all of us here,” said Rigney.

The SLS will be built in 3 stages, called blocks:

  • Block 1 will have a 70 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 1B will be more powerful for deeper missions and will have a 105 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 2 will add a pair of solid or liquid propellant boosters and will have a 130 metric ton lift capability.

Each of these blocks will use 4 RS-25 engines, and in its Block 2 configuration it will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

Engine #2059 is more than just a test engine. It will be used on the second SLS exploration mission (EM2), which will carry 4 astronauts into lunar orbit to test the SLS spacecraft.

“You can’t help but be excited about the test on A-1 (test stand,) especially when you realize that the engines that carried us to the moon and that carried astronauts on 135 space shuttle missions were tested on this very same stand. We’re just adding to a remarkable history of space exploration,” said Stennis Space Center Director Rick Gilbrech.

The team at Stennis feels the characteristic enthusiasm that NASA is known for. “We’re not just dreaming of the future. We’re enabling it to happen right now,” said Rigney.

Though the March 10th test is definitely a milestone, there’s still lots more work to do. Testing on RS-25 engines and flight controllers will continue, and in 2017, testing of the core stage will take place. 4 RS-25 engines will be tested at the same time.

That will be quite a sight.

Incredible Hand-Drawn Animations Explain How Spacecraft Work

Freelance animator and storyboard artist Stanley VonMedvey has started using his remarkable talents to create short videos to explain a pretty complex topic: how spacecraft work. He’s made two so far and they are wonderfully concise, clear and easy to understand. Plus his hand-drawn animations are incredible.

Here’s the first one that caught my eye, about the space shuttle and the concept of reusability:

VonMedvey 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.

He’d 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 (using the time-honored home-recording technique of draping a blanket over his head) in his home officee.

“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”.

The second video he’s done covers expendable launch vehicles:

Enjoy these great videos and if you’d like to see more, consider supporting his work. See more of his drawings at his website.

NASA Thinks There’s a Way to Get to Mars in 3 Days

Interstellar travel will require near-light-speed to be feasible. Image: NASA

We’ve achieved amazing things by using chemical rockets to place satellites in orbit, land people on the Moon, and place rovers on the surface of Mars. We’ve even used ion drives to reach destinations further afield in our Solar System. But reaching other stars, or reducing our travel time to Mars or other planets, will require another method of travel. One that can approach relativistic speeds.

Your aim has to be really really good.
Your aim has to be really really good. Credit: UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group
We can execute missions to Mars, but it takes several months for a vehicle to reach the Red Planet. Even then, those missions have to be launched during the most optimal launch windows, which only occur every 2 years. But the minds at NASA never stop thinking about this problem, and now Dr. Philip Lubin, Physics Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, may have come up with something: photonic propulsion, which he thinks could reduce the travel time from Earth to Mars to just 3 days, for a 100 kg craft.

The system is called DEEP IN, or Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration. The general idea is that we have achieved relativistic speeds in the laboratory, but haven’t taken that technology—which is electromagnetic in nature, rather than chemical—and used it outside of the laboratory. In short, we can propel individual particles to near light speed inside particle accelerators, but haven’t expanded that technology to the macro level.

Directed Energy Propulsion differs from rocket technology in a fundamental way: the propulsion system stays at home, and the craft doesn’t carry any fuel or propellant. Instead, the craft would carry a system of reflectors, which would be struck with an aimed stream of photons, propelling the craft forward. And the whole system is modular and scalable.

Photonic propulsion explained.
Photonic propulsion explained.

If that’s not tantalizing enough, the system can also be used to deflect hazardous space debris, and to detect other technological civilizations. As talked about in this paper, detecting these types of systems in use by other civilizations may be our best hope for discovering those civilizations.

There’s a roadmap for using this system, and it starts small. At first, DEEP IN would be used to launch small cube satellites. The feedback from this phase would then inform the next step, which would be to test a unit for defending the ISS from space debris. From then, the systems would meet goals of increasing complexity, from launching satellites to LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geostationary Orbit), all the way up to asteroid deflection and planetary defense. After that, relativistic drives capable of interstellar travel is the goal.

There are lots of questions still to be answered of course, like what happens when a vehicle at near light-speed hits a tiny meteorite. But those questions will be asked and answered as the system is developed and its capabilities grow.

Obviously, DEEP IN has the potential to bring other stars into reach. This system could deliver probes to some of the more promising exo-planets, and give humanity its first detailed look at other solar systems. If DEEP IN can be successfully scaled up, as Lubin says, then it will be a transformational technology.

Here’s a longer video of Dr. Lubin explaining DEEP IN in greater depth and detail: http://livestream.com/viewnow/niac2015seattle

Here’s the website for the University of California Santa Barbara Experimental Cosmology Group: http://www.deepspace.ucsb.edu/

How Long Does It Take To Get To The Moon?

Back in 2008, Richard Branson outlined his vision for Virgin Galactic’s future. Once tourists are taken into Earth orbit, it seems possible that space hotels could be developed for longer stop-overs in space. He then went on to mention that short “sight-seeing” tours to the Moon could be started from these ultimate hotels. If we are to make travel to the Moon routine enough to send tourists there, the trip would need to be as short as possible.

So how long is the commute from the Earth to the Moon anyway? Human beings and machines have made that trip on several occasions. And while some took a very long time, others were astonishingly fast. Let’s review the various missions and methods, and see which offers the most efficient and least time-consuming means of transit.

Continue reading “How Long Does It Take To Get To The Moon?”

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

Watch Live as NASA Announces Who Will Fly Astronauts to the Space Station

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

NASA will make a “major announcement” today on the return of human spaceflight launches for the U.S, specifically which commercial space company — or companies — will taxi astronauts to and from the International Space. You can watch the press conference live here today (Sept. 16) at 4 pm EDT (1 pm PDT, 20:00 UTC).

The competition for the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has been between four companies: SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin. Some media reports indicate NASA will make commercial crew awards to the obvious front-runners, Boeing and SpaceX.

SpaceX’s Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station in 2012, and SpaceX has been working on a version of the Dragon that can carry humans as well.

Boeing’s CST-100 can carry up to seven passengers or a mix of humans and cargo.

Sierra Nevada has been working on the Dream Chaser, a winged spacecraft that looks similar to a mini space shuttle. Blue Origin has been developing a capsule called Space Vehicle.

The CCP program was developed after the space shuttle program ended in 2011. While NASA focuses its human spaceflight efforts on the new Space Launch System and going beyond Earth orbit, they will use commercial companies that will launch from the US to ferry their astronauts to the space station.

Stunning Footage from SpaceShipTwo’s Third Rocket-Powered Flight

Virgin Galactic released video from SpaceShipTwo’s flight test last Friday, January 10, 2014. This was the third supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of successful subsonic test flights. The pilots Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System, the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms, and the “feather” re-entry system, all with great success.

See some images from the flight below.

You can read our coverage from Friday’s test flight here.

Image from SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10, 2014. Credit: Virgin Galactic.
Image from SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014. Credit: Virgin Galactic.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

Crew Launches to Space Station with Olympic Torch

Update: the crew has now arrived safely at the ISS. You can watch the arrival video below.

Three new crew members are on their way to the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos launched on a Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 11:14 p.m. EST (04:14:00 UTC, 10:14 a.m. Thursday, Kazakh time). They’ll use the accelerated “fast-track” trajectory and arrive at the station in just a few hours, at 10:31 UTC (5:31 a.m. EST Thursday.)

You can watch the launch video below.

In an usual situation, when the new crew arrives, there will be nine crew members and three Soyuz vehicles at the ISS. The timing of crew exchange works to enable a complicated “relay race” of a special Olympic torch from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. The new crew is bringing the unlit torch along, then, over the weekend Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy, who are part of the space station’s current crew, will take the torch out on a spacewalk, with plans to take pictures and video (they’ll try to take pictures when the station flies over Russia and the southern resort of Sochi). The real reason for the spacewalk is to do some routine Russian maintenance outside the station.

The Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome  with the crew of Expedition 38. Via NASA TV.
The Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the crew of Expedition 38. Via NASA TV.

Then, on Sunday, three crew members will return home (Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg) and they will bring the torch back home, with landing planned at about 9:50 p.m. EST on Nov 10 (02:50 UTC on Nov 11.) The torch then will be given back to Olympic officials and it will be used in the opening ceremonies of the February games.

After that crew departs, Expedition 38 will begin with Kotov as Commander.

Nine crew members together on the International Space Station. The Expedition 38 crew entered the ISS at 12:44 UTC (7:44 am EST). The crew of nine will work together till Sunday. Credit: NASA
Nine crew members together on the International Space Station. The Expedition 38 crew entered the ISS at 12:44 UTC (7:44 am EST). The crew of nine will work together till Sunday. Credit: NASA

There have not been nine crew members on the ISS since 2009. During the second half of the new crew’s Expedition, when it changes to Expedition 39, Wakata will make history by becoming the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station. You can read more about Wakata and Mastracchio and their upcoming mission in an interview they did with Elizabeth Howell during their training.

The new fast-track trajectory has the Soyuz rocket launching shortly after the ISS passes overhead. Then, additional firings of the vehicle’s thrusters early in its mission expedites the time required for a Russian vehicle to reach the Station, in about 6 hours or four orbits.

Launch video:

Arrival and docking: