Every few years the “EmDrive”, a proposed method of generating rocket thrust without any exhaust, hits the news. Each time, everyone asks: could this be it? Could this be the technological leap to revolutionize spaceflight?
Space may be pretty, but it’s dangerous. Astronauts face a much higher dose of ionizing radiation than us Earth-bound folks, and a new report says that NASA’s current guidelines and risk assessment methods are in serious need of an update.
The EmDrive is a hypothetical rocket that proponents claim can generate thrust with no exhaust. This would violate all known physics. In 2016, a team at NASA’s Eagleworks lab claimed to measure thrust from an EmDrive device, the news of which caused quite a stir. The latest attempt to replicate the shocking results has resulted in a simple answer: the Eagleworks measurement was from heating of the engine mount, not any new physics.
Virgin Galactic has reached another milestone in their fight test program. The VSS Unity spacecraft carried a third crew member on board, in its fifth rocket-powered test flight. It was the second time that the spacecraft reached space.
It’s one thing to get from Earth to space, but sometimes you want to do the opposite. You want to get into orbit or touch down gently on the surface of a planet and explore it. How do spacecraft stop? And what does that even mean when everything is orbiting?
The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.
A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.
The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.
Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)
Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”
In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”
The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.
The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.
Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.
“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.
Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.
“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”
“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”
Joe Pappalardo is the author of the new popular science and technology book, Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight (The Overlook Press; Available Now). In it, Pappalardo “tackles the ever-changing, 21st-century space industry and what privately funded projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX mean for the future of space travel.” (Foreign Policy)
Spaceport Earth takes readers on a tour of these high-stakes sites as Pappalardo examines how private companies are reshaping the way we use, intend to use, and view space travel, not solely for scientific exploration but for increasingly more general travel. Visiting every working spaceport in the United States and rocket launches around the world, Pappalardo presents a travelogue and modern history of spaceflight — where the industry is now and what’s on the horizon for explorers and consumers alike—in Spaceport Earth.
If you’ve read enough of our articles, you know I’ve got an uneasy alliance with the Sun. Sure, it provides the energy we need for all life on Earth. But, it’s a great big ongoing thermonuclear reaction, and it’s right there! As soon as we get fusion, Sun, in like, 30 years or so, I tell you, we’ll be the ones laughing.
But to be honest, we still have so many questions about the Sun. For starters, we don’t fully understand the solar wind blasting out of the Sun. This constant wind of charged particles is constantly blowing out into space, but sometimes it’s stronger, and sometimes it’s weaker.
What are the factors that contribute to the solar wind? And as you know, these charged particles are not healthy for the human body, or for our precious electronics. In fact, the Sun occasionally releases enormous blasts that can damage our satellites and electrical grids.
How can we predict the intensity so that we can be better prepared for dangerous solar storms? Especially the Carrington-class events that might take down huge portions of our modern society.
Perhaps the biggest mystery with the Sun is the temperature of its corona. The surface of the Sun is hot, like 5,500 degrees Celsius. But if you rise up into the atmosphere of the Sun, into its corona, the temperature jumps beyond a million degrees.
The list of mysteries is long. And to start understanding what’s going on, we’ll need to get much much closer to the Sun.
Good news, NASA has a new mission in the works to do just that.
The mission is called the Parker Solar Probe. Actually, last week, it was called the Solar Probe Plus, but then NASA renamed it, and that reminded me to do a video on it.
It’s pretty normal for NASA to rename their spacecraft, usually after a dead astronomer/space scientist, like Kepler, Chandra, etc. This time, though, they renamed it for a legendary solar astronomer Eugene Parker, who developed much of our modern thinking on the Sun’s solar wind. Parker just turned 90 and this is the first time NASA has named it after someone living.
Anyway, back to the spacecraft.
The mission is due to launch in early August 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy, so we’re still more than a year away at this point. When it does, it’ll carry the spacecraft on a very unusual trajectory through the inner Solar System.
The problem is that the Sun is actually a very difficult place to reach. In fact, it’s the hardest place to get to in the entire Solar System.
Remember that the Earth is traveling around the Sun at a velocity of 30 km/s. That’s almost three times the velocity it takes to get into orbit. That’s a lot of velocity.
In order to be able to get anywhere near the Sun, the probe needs to shed velocity. And in order to do this, it’s going to use gravitational slingshots with Venus. We’ve talked about gravitational slingshots in the past, and how you can use them to speed up a spacecraft, but you can actually do the reverse.
The Parker Solar Probe will fall down into Venus’ gravity well, and give orbital velocity to Venus. This will put it on a new trajectory which takes it closer to the Sun. It’ll do a total of 7 flybys in 7 years, each of which will tweak its trajectory and shed some of that orbital momentum.
You know, trying to explain orbital maneuvering is tough. I highly recommend that you try out Kerbal Space Program. I’ve learned more about orbital mechanics by playing that game for a few months than I have in almost 2 decades of space journalism. Go ahead, try to get to the Sun, I challenge you.
Anyway, with each Venus flyby, the Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun, well within the orbit of Mercury. Far closer than any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun. At its closest point, it’ll only be 5.9 million kilometers from the Sun. Just for comparison, the Earth orbits at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers. That’s close.
And over the course of its entire mission, the spacecraft is expected to make a total of 24 complete orbits of the Sun, analyzing that plasma ball from every angle.
The orbit is also highly elliptical, which means that it’s going really really fast at its closest point. Almost 725,000 km/h.
In order to withstand the intense temperatures of being this close to the Sun, NASA has engineered the Parker Solar Probe to shed heat. It’s equipped with an 11.5 cm-thick shield made of carbon-composite. For that short time it spends really close to the Sun, the spacecraft will keep the shield up, blocking that heat from reaching the rest of its instruments.
And it’s going to get hot. We’re talking about more than 1,300 degrees Celsius, which is about 475 times as much energy as a spacecraft receives here on Earth. In the outer Solar System, the problem is that there just isn’t enough energy to power solar panels. But where Parker is going, there’s just too much energy.
Now we’ve talked about the engineering difficulties of getting a spacecraft this close to the Sun, let’s talk about the science.
The biggest question astronomers are looking to solve is, how does the corona get so hot. The surface is 5,500 Celsius. As you get farther away from the Sun, you’d expect the temperature to go down. And it certainly does once you get as far as the orbit of the Earth.
But the Sun’s corona, or its outer atmosphere, extends millions of kilometers into space. You can see it during a solar eclipse as this faint glow around the Sun. Instead of dropping, the temperature rises to more than a million degrees.
What could be causing this? There are a couple of ideas. Plasma waves pushed off the Sun could bunch up and release their heat into the corona. You could also get the crisscrossing of magnetic field lines that create mini-flares within the corona, heating it up.
The second great mystery is the solar wind, the stream of charged protons and electrons coming from the Sun. Instead of a constant blowing wind, it can go faster or slower. And when the speed changes, the contents of the wind change too.
There’s the slow wind, that goes a mere 1.1 million km/h and seems to emanate from the Sun’s equatorial regions. And then the fast wind, which seems to be coming out of coronal holes, cooler parts in the Sun’s corona, and can be going at 2.7 million km/h.
Why does the solar wind speed change? Why does its consistency change?
The Parker Solar Probe is equipped with four major instruments, each of which will gather data from the Sun and its environment.
The FIELDS experiment will measure the electric and magnetic fields and waves around the Sun. We know that much of the Sun’s behavior is driven by the complex interaction between charged plasma in the Sun. In fact, many physicists agree that magnetohydrodynamics is easily one of the most complicated fields you can get into.
Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, or ISOIS (which I suspect needs a renaming) will measure the charged particles streaming off the Sun, during regular solar activity and during dangerous solar storms. Can we get any warning before these events occur, giving astronauts more time to protect themselves?
Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe or WISPR is its telescope and camera. It’s going to be taking close up, high resolution images of the Sun and its corona that will blow our collective minds… I hope. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of interesting data and no pretty pictures, it’s going to be hard to make cool videos showcasing the results of the mission. You hear me NASA, we want pictures and videos. And science, sure.
And then the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, or SWEAP, will measure type, velocity, temperature and density of particles around the Sun, to help us understand the environment around it.
One interesting side note, the spacecraft will be carrying a tiny chip on board with photos of Eugene Parker and a copy of his original 1958 paper explaining the Sun’s solar wind.
I know we’re still more than a year away from liftoff, and several years away before the science data starts pouring in. But you’ll be hearing more and more about this mission shortly, and I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to accomplish. So stay tuned, and once the science comes in, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty more about it.
Did you know that it’s been almost 45 years since humans walked on the surface of the Moon? Of course you do. Anyone who loves space exploration obsesses about the last Apollo landings, and counts the passing years of sadness.
Sure, SpaceX, Blue Origins and the new NASA Space Launch Systems rocket offer a tantalizing future in space. But 45 years. Ouch, so much lost time.
What would happen if we could go back in time? What amazing and insane plans did NASA have to continue exploring the Solar System? What alternative future could we have now, 45 years later?
In order to answer this question, I’ve teamed up with my space historian friend, Amy Shira Teitel, who runs the Vintage Space blog and YouTube Channel. We’ve decided to look at two groups of missions that never happened.
In my half of the series, I look at Werner Von Braun’s insanely ambitious plans to send a human mission to Mars. Put it together with Amy’s episode and you can imagine a space exploration future with all the ambition of the Kerbal Space Program.
Keep mind here that we’re not going to constrain ourselves with the pesky laws of physics, and the reality of finances. These ideas were cool, and considered by NASA engineers, but they weren’t necessarily the best ideas, or even feasible.
So, 2 parts, tackle them in any order you like. My part begins right now.
Werner Von Braun, of course, was the architect for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts during the space race. It was under Von Braun’s guidance that NASA developed the various flight hardware for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions including the massive Saturn V rocket, which eventually put a human crew of astronauts on the Moon and safely returned them back to Earth.
Von Braun was originally a German rocket scientist, pivotal to the Nazi “rocket team”, which developed the ballistic V-2 rockets. These unmanned rockets could carry a 1-tonne payload 800 kilometers away. They were developed in 1942, and by 1944 they were being used in war against Allied targets.
By the end of the war, Von Braun coordinated his surrender to the Allies as well as 500 of his engineers, including their equipment and plans for future rockets. In “Operation Paperclip”, the German scientists were captured and transferred to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where they would begin working on the US rocket efforts.
Before the work really took off, though, Von Braun had a couple of years of relative downtime, and in 1947 and 1948, he wrote a science fiction novel about the human exploration of Mars.
The novel itself was never published, because it was terrible, but it also contained a detailed appendix containing all the calculations, mission parameters, hardware designs to carry out this mission to Mars.
In 1952, this appendix was published in Germany as “Das Marsproject”, or “The Mars Project”. And an English version was published a few years later. Collier’s Weekly Magazine did an 8-part special on the Mars Project in 1952, captivating the world’s imagination.
Here’s the plan: In the Mars Project, Von Braun envisioned a vast armada of spaceships that would make the journey from Earth to Mars. They would send a total of 10 giant spaceships, each of which would weigh about 4,000 tonnes.
Just for comparison, a fully loaded Saturn V rocket could carry about 140 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. In other words, they’d need a LOT of rockets. Von Braun estimated that 950 three-stage rockets should be enough to get everything into orbit.
All the ships would be assembled in orbit, and 70 crewmembers would take to their stations for an epic journey. They’d blast their rockets and carry out a Mars Hohmann transfer, which would take them 8 months to make the journey from Earth to Mars.
The flotilla consisted of 7 orbiters, huge spheres that would travel to Mars, go into orbit and then return back to Earth. It also consisted of 3 glider landers, which would enter the Martian atmosphere and stay on Mars.
Once they reached the Red Planet, they would use powerful telescopes to scan the Martian landscape and search for safe and scientifically interesting landing spots. The first landing would happen at one of the planet’s polar caps, which Von Braun figured was the only guaranteed flat surface for a landing.
At this point, it’s important to note that Von Braun assumed that the Martian atmosphere was about as thick as Earth’s. He figured you could use huge winged gliders to aerobrake into the atmosphere and land safely on the surface.
He was wrong. The atmosphere on Mars is actually only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and these gliders would never work. Newer missions, like SpaceX’s Red Dragon and Interplanetary Transport Ship will use rockets to make a powered landing.
I think if Von Braun knew this, he could have modified his plans to still make the whole thing work.
Once the first expedition landed at one of the polar caps, they’d make a 6,400 kilometer journey across the harsh Martian landscape to the first base camp location, and build a landing strip. Then two more gliders would detach from the flotilla and bring the majority of the explorers to the base camp. A skeleton crew would remain in orbit.
Once again, I think it’s important to note that Von Braun didn’t truly understand how awful the surface of Mars really is. The almost non-existent atmosphere and extreme cold would require much more sophisticated gear than he had planned for. But still, you’ve got to admire his ambition.
With the Mars explorer team on the ground, their first task was to turn their glider-landers into rockets again. They would stand them up and get them prepped to blast off from the surface of Mars when their mission was over.
The Martian explorers would set up an inflatable habitat, and then spend the next 400 days surveying the area. Geologists would investigate the landscape, studying the composition of the rocks. Botanists would study the hardy Martian plant life, and seeing what kinds of Earth plants would grow.
Zoologists would study the local animals, and help figure out what was dangerous and what was safe to eat. Archeologists would search the region for evidence of ancient Martian civilizations, and study the vast canal network seen from Earth by astronomers. Perhaps they’d even meet the hardy Martians that built those canals, struggling to survive to this day.
Once again, in the 1940s, we thought Mars would be like the Earth, just more of a desert. There’d be plants and animals, and maybe even people adapted to the hardy environment. With our modern knowledge, this sounds quaint today. The most brutal desert on Earth is a paradise compared to the nicest place on Mars. Von Braun did the best he could with the best science of the time.
Finally, at the end of their 400 days on Mars, the astronauts would blast off from the surface of Mars, meet up with the orbiting crew, and the entire flotilla would make the return journey to Earth using the minimum-fuel Mars-Earth transfer trajectory.
Although Von Braun got a lot of things wrong about his Martian mission plan, such as the thickness of the atmosphere and habitability of Mars, he got a lot of things right.
He anticipated a mission plan that required the least amount of fuel, by assembling pieces in orbit, using the Hohmann transfer trajectory, exploring Mars for 400 days to match up Earth and Mars orbits. He developed the concept of using orbiters, detachable landing craft and ascent vehicles, used by the Apollo Moon missions.
The missions never happened, obviously, but Von Braun’s ideas served as the backbone for all future human Mars mission plans.
I’d like to give a massive thanks to the space historian David S.F. Portree. He wrote an amazing book called Humans to Mars, which details 50 years of NASA plans to send humans to the Red Planet, including a fantastic synopsis of the Mars Project.
I asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his…
“… reliance on a conjunction-class long-stay mission lasting 400 days. That was gutsy – in the 1960s, NASA and contractor planners generally stuck with opposition-class short-stay missions. In recent years we’ve seen more emphasis on the conjunction-class mission mode, sometimes with a relatively short period on Mars but lots of time in orbit, other times with almost the whole mission spent on the surface.”
You might think you’re reading an educational website, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really what’s going on here.
What’s actually happening is that you’re tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover.
Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Anyway, my point is. Squirrel!
Fast radio bursts are the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery.
Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out just yet?
Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy, and that idea that we’re living in a
Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored.
Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys” were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University.
He was looking through an archive of pulsar observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second, so precisely you could set your watch to them.
In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny” observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them.
Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s favorite target of study.
Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat, maybe.
The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers have no idea.”
In fact, until very recently, astronomers weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical.
Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three.
Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin.
Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova, or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts.
In order to really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia.
It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes, and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the early cosmos.
In addition to this, it’s going to be able to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers vast pools of signals to study.
What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion, they’d be glad to hear it.
In these kinds of situations, astronomers generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models match the observations.
Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet, or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands of years, but a quick snack.
The next idea comes with the only repeating fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least 10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart.
Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating, this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars (which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional shrieks of radio.
Or maybe this repeating object is totally different from the single events that have been discovered so far.
Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s good enough for my fertile imagination.
Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University said the following about FRBs:
“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”
Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice.
Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter.
And what would you do with a transmission of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse.
But in reality, this huge solar array would be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, but for million tonne spaceships.
In other words, we could be witnessing alien transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds.
And I know that’s probably not what’s happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining.
So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll let you know all about it.
What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild speculation in the comments.