We’ll be Building Self-Replicating Probes to Explore the Milky Way Sooner Than you Think. Why Haven’t ETIs?

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The future can arrive in sudden bursts. What seems a long way off can suddenly jump into view, especially when technology is involved. That might be true of self-replicating machines. Will we combine 3D printing with in-situ resource utilization to build self-replicating space probes?

One aerospace engineer with expertise in space robotics thinks it could happen sooner rather than later. And that has implications for SETI.

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Ion Engines Could Work on Earth too, to Make Silent, Solid-State Aircraft

A new MIT plane is propelled via ionic wind. Batteries in the fuselage (tan compartment in front of plane) supply voltage to electrodes (blue/white horizontal lines) strung along the length of the plane, generating a wind of ions that propels the plane forward. Credits:Image: Christine Y. He/MIT

Ion engines are the best technology for sending spacecraft on long missions. They’re not suitable for launching spacecraft against powerful gravity, but they require minimal propellant compared to rockets, and they drive spacecraft to higher velocities over extended time periods. Ion thrusters are also quiet, and their silence has some scientists wondering if they could use them on Earth in applications where noise is undesirable.

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A New Artist’s Illustration of the Extremely Large Telescope. So Many Lasers

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be the biggest ‘eye on the sky’ when it achieves first light later this decade. The telescope uses lasers as ‘guide stars’ to measure how much the light is distorted by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. The deformable M4 mirror adjusts its shape in real time to compensate for these changes in the atmosphere, helping the ELT produce images 16 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: ESO

Everyone loves lasers. And the only thing better than a bunch of lasers is a bunch of lasers on one of the world’s (soon to be) largest telescopes, the E-ELT. Well, maybe a bunch of lasers on a time-travelling T. Rex that appears in your observatory and demands to know the locations and trajectories of incoming asteroids. That might be better. For the dinosaurs; not for us.

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The Carina Nebula. Seen With and Without Adaptive Optics

This image shows a comparison of the new image (top) of the western wall of the Carina Nebula taken by the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, and an image of the same region without Adaptive Optics (bottom). The top image was taken with the Gemini South telescope with the GSAOI instrument using the GeMS adaptive optics system, and the bottom image was taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory with the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope using the NEWFIRM instrument. Image Credit: International Gemini Observatory/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

Ever wonder how modern astronomical observatories take such clear images of distant objects? Advances in mirror design have allowed for larger and larger primary mirrors. But adaptive optics play a huge role, too.

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This Rocket Engine’s Thrust Chamber was 3D-printed and Only has Three Parts

This fully 3D-printed thrust chamber is built in just three parts and could power the upper stages of future rockets. This first test lasted 30 seconds and was carried out on 26 May 2020 at the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Lampoldshausen testing facility. Credit: ESA/DLR.

This week, European engineers hot-fire tested a fully 3D-printed thrust chamber that could one day power the upper stages for rockets. The chamber has just three parts, and was constructed using additive layer manufacturing, another name for 3D printing.  

This hot-fire test lasted 30 seconds and was carried out on May 26, 2020 at the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Lampoldshausen testing facility. The European Space Agency said that additional tests are planned for next week.

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Astronomy Cast now available via Amazon’s Alexa!

You can now enable the Amazon Astronomy Cast skill on your Alexa enabled device (in the US now, Canada soon)!
You just log into your Alexa dashboard, go to the Skills, and look for “Astronomy Cast.” Or, even easier than that, just say “Alexa, enable Astronomy Cast!”

You can tell Alexa to skip episodes, back up or jump forward within the same podcast for a certain number of minutes, and many other commands.

Here’s a video from another podcast, The School of Podcasting, that shows you how it works!

And Amazon really care about Ratings and Reviews – so make sure to Rate / Review the Alexa skill for us!

Showcasing the Benefits of NASA Technology Here on Earth

Every year, NASA showcases how the technology it develops for exploring space and studying other worlds has applications here on planet Earth. It’s what known as Spinoff, an annual publication that NASA’s Technology Transfer Program has been putting out since 1976. Since that time, they have showcased over 2000 examples where NASA technology was used for the sake of creating products that had wide-ranging benefits.

For Spinoff 2017, NASA selected 50 different companies that are using NASA technology – which included innovations developed by NASA, those made with the help of NASA funding, or those produced under contract with the agency. With examples ranging from GPS and satellite imaging, to light detection and ranging (Lidar) and biomedical devices, the list of commercial applications for this year is quite impressive!

For over 50 years, the NASA Technology Transfer Program has share NASA resources with private industries, a process which is colloquially referred to as “spin-offs”. In finding the widest possible applications for NASA technology and leveraging partnerships and licensing agreements with industry, they ensure that the large investments made in space exploration find additional uses that benefit humanity here on Earth.

Spinoff is an annual publication exploring the many applications NASA technology has. Credit: NASA
Spinoff is an annual publication exploring the many applications NASA technology has. Credit: NASA

In the past, spin-offs have included memory foam, freeze-dried food, emergency thermal blankets, Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and numerous other application that have benefited the computer, medical, transportation, manufacturing and safety industries – thought not Velcro or Tang (contrary to popular conception). As Dan Lockney, the executive of NASA’s Technology Transfer program, told Universe Today via email:

“Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring technologies that have left NASA’s launchpads and laboratories and moved into the public sector. We’ve published Spinoff each year since 1976, featuring about 50 of the best examples of commercialized NASA technologies each year. These range from consumer goods to public safety and medical equipment to advances in round and aire transportation.

These commercialized technologies are often a direct outcome of the work that NASA’s Technology Transfer Program conducts. Our Tech Transfer Program works to get the technolgoes developed for NASA missions out to industry so that they can have second lives as new products and services.”

This year’s spinoffs were certainly numerous, but some are particularly worthy of mention. For instance, there is the metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor that was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Since its creation, it has become one of NASA’s most ubiquitous technologies, leading to the development of DSLR cameras, camera phones, and digital cameras that are available on every handheld device on the market.

And then there’s the GPS technology NASA began developing back in the 1990s, which included software capable of correcting for GPS signal errors and enabling incredible accuracy. John Deere recently acquired this technology and used it to develop a popular class of self-driving farm tractors. Today, as much as 70% of North American farmland is cultivated by self-driving tractors that rely on this technology.

Aerial photograph of a forest in Connecticut (left), and bare-earth lidar image beneath the overgrown vegetation (right) showing the remnants of stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads and what was once cleared farm land. Credits: NASA/Katharine Johnson
Aerial photograph of a forest in Connecticut (left), and bare-earth lidar image beneath the overgrown vegetation (right) showing the remnants of stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads and what was once cleared farm land. Credits: NASA/Katharine Johnson

And then there is the spinoff involving NASA-developed laser imaging and ranging technology (Lidar). This technology allowed the Pheonix Lander to detect snow falling from the skies of Mars, and will be used to OSIRIS-REx mission to land on an asteroid in the coming decade. And recently, this same technology was used by a team of archaeologists to map prehistoric sites in North America where hunter-gatherers hunted bison en masse.

In addition, “Robotics Spinoffs” get a special mention in this year’s report, with homage being paid to missions like Curiosity and Juno (which have explored the surfaces and atmospheres of other planets) and space-based observatories like Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble – which have looked deep into the cosmic field. The technologies used by these missions has also had an impact in virtually every sector of the world’s economy.

The publication also includes a section called “Spinoffs of Tomorrow“, which highlights 20 technologies that are especially well-suited for commercial adaptation. These include thin-film piezoelectric and composite materials that could be used in wind turbines to generate more electricity and improve electrode durability, as well as in personal devices to generate power from mere movement.

There’s also the new Armstrong wing design that lower drags, which could make airplanes and wind turbines more efficient. The Glenn Research Center is also cited for their development of a suite of materials and methods that optimize the performance of nanomaterials by making them tougher, more resistant, and easier to process. This could be used to build super-resilient fabrics and consumer products.

NASA's Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL
NASA’s Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL

Then there’s an underwater vehicle developed by JPL that uses thermally-generated changes in buoyancy to generate electricity and recharge its batteries. This technology, which enables submarines to remain underwater for years at a time, could lead to the creation of nearly self-sufficient undersea drones – something that has applications in everything from sea exploration to pipeline monitoring.

The section also makes mention of an easy-to-use device that separates DNA, RNA, and proteins outside a traditional lab environment. Originally intended for use aboard the ISS, this device could be a boon for developing nations where medical infrastructure may be limited.  And there’s also a system that autonomously detects faulty wiring and reroutes around it.

As always, the development of cutting-edge technologies can have applications that go far beyond the purpose for which they were originally intended. Whether it is robotic landers or probes, miniaturized cameras, improved electronics, or advanced materials, commercial industries here on Earth have always benefited from the research, development and exploration efforts of the space industry.

And as our efforts to send astronauts to Mars, return to the Moon, and explore the outer Solar System andbeyond continue, who knows what commercial applications will emerge as a result? And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video which explains how NASA technology is licensed through the TTP:

Further Reading: NASA

Moisture Vaporators, Death Star Construction and Other Real Star Wars Tech

X-wing fighter flies by Earth? Actually, it is the ATV2 (Johannes Kepler) as it departs the ISS in 2011. Credit: NASA/Ron Garan

Remember that time an X-Wing fighter flew past the International Space Station? Or when R2D2 saved the ISS crew?

OK, yeah, those things didn’t really happen, but since the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, there has been a lot of technology developed that mimics the science and tech from the sci-fi blockbuster films. Of course, we now have real robots in space (Robonaut), drones are now everyday items, there are actual holograms (Voxiebox and Fairy Lights) and DARPA has been developing prosthetic limbs that Luke Skywalker would totally use, called the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET). Plus, Boeing is building blaster guns that will use “pew-pew” sound effects from Star Wars. Seriously. The lasers are silent, and so they need to add sound to know for sure they’ve been fired.

Since we all certainly have Star Wars on the brain today (The Force Awakens opens tonight), let’s take a look at a few recent space-related developments that hint of inspiration from the movies:
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Making the Trip to Mars Cheaper and Easier: The Case for Ballistic Capture

How long does it take to get to Mars
A new proposal for sending craft to Mars could save money and offer more flexible launch windows. Credit: NASA

When sending spacecraft to Mars, the current, preferred method involves shooting spacecraft towards Mars at full-speed, then performing a braking maneuver once the ship is close enough to slow it down and bring it into orbit.

Known as the “Hohmann Transfer” method, this type of maneuver is known to be effective. But it is also quite expensive and relies very heavily on timing. Hence why a new idea is being proposed which would involve sending the spacecraft out ahead of Mars’ orbital path and then waiting for Mars to come on by and scoop it up.

This is what is known as “Ballistic Capture”, a new technique proposed by Professor Francesco Topputo of the Polytechnic Institute of Milan and Edward Belbruno, a visiting associated researcher at Princeton University and former member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In their research paper, which was published in arXiv Astrophysics in late October, they outlined the benefits of this method versus traditional ones. In addition to cutting fuel costs, ballistic capture would also provide some flexibility when it comes to launch windows.

MAVEN was launched into a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with periapsis at Earth's orbit and apoapsis at the distance of the orbit of Mars. Credit: NASA
MAVEN was launched into a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with periapsis at Earth’s orbit and apoapsis at the distance of the orbit of Mars. Credit: NASA

Currently, launches between Earth and Mars are limited to period where the rotation between the two planets is just right. Miss this window, and you have to wait another 26 months for a new one to come along.

At the same time, sending a rocket into space, through the vast gulf that separates Earth’s and Mars’ orbit, and then firing thrusters in the opposite direction to slow down, requires a great deal of fuel. This in turn means that the spacecraft responsible for transporting satellites, rovers, and (one day) astronauts need to be larger and more complicated, and hence more expensive.

As Belbruno told Universe Today via email:  “This new class of transfers is very promising for giving a new approach to future Mars missions that should lower cost and risk.  This new class of transfers should be applicable to all the planets. This should give all sorts of new possibilities for missions.”

The idea was first proposed by Belbruno while he was working for JPL, where he was trying to come up with numerical models for low-energy trajectories. “I first came up with the idea of ballistic capture in early 1986 when working on a JPL study called LGAS (Lunar Get Away Special),” he said. “This study involved putting a tiny 100 kg solar electric spacecraft in orbit around the Moon that was first ejected from a Get Away Special Canister on the Space Shuttle.”

The Hiten spacecraft, part of the MUSES Program, was built by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of Japan and launched on January 24, 1990. It was Japan's first lunar probe. Credit: JAXA
The Hiten spacecraft, built by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of Japan, was Japan’s first lunar probe. Credit: JAXA

The test of the LGAS was not a resounding success, as it would be two years before it got to the Moon. But in 1990, when Japan was looking to rescue their failed lunar orbiter, Hiten, he submitted proposals for a ballistic capture attempt that were quickly incorporated into the mission.

“The time of flight for this one was 5 months,” he said. “It was successfully used in 1991 to get Hiten to the Moon.” And since that time, the LGAS design has been used for other lunar missions, including the ESA’s SMART-1 mission in 2004 and NASA’s GRAIL mission in 2011.

But it is in future missions, which involve much greater distances and expenditures of fuel, that Belbruno felt would most benefit from this method. Unfortunately, the idea met with some resistance, as no missions appeared well-suited to the technique.

“Ever since 1991 when Japan’s Hiten used the new ballistic capture transfer to the Moon, it was felt that finding a useful one for Mars was not possible due to Mars much longer distance and its high orbital velocity about the Sun. However, I was able to find one in early 2014 with my colleague Francesco Topputo.”

Artist's impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit: ISRO
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was one of the most successful examples of the Hohmann Transfer method. Credit: ISRO

Granted, there are some drawbacks to the new method. For one, a spacecraft sent out ahead of Mars’ orbital path would take longer to get into orbit than one that slows itself down to establish orbit.

In addition, the Hohmann Transfer method is a time-tested and reliable one. One of the most successful applications of this maneuver took place back in September, when the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) made its historic orbit around the Red Planet. This not only constituted the first time an Asian nation reached Mars, it was also the first time that any space agency had achieved a Mars orbit on the first try.

Nevertheless, the possibilities for improvements over the current method of sending craft to Mars has people at NASA excited. As James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in an interview with Scientific American: “It’s an eye-opener. This [ballistic capture technique] could not only apply here to the robotic end of it but also the human exploration end.”

Don’t be surprised then if upcoming missions to Mars or the outer Solar System are performed with greater flexibility, and on a tighter budget.

Further Reading: arXiv Astrophysics

Turn on Your Heart Light and Meet NASA’s “Superhero” Robot

A concept drawing of what eventually became Valkyrie, Johnson Space Center's entry in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Credit: NASA, via DARPA.

Here’s a new DARPA-inspired, NASA-built robot, complete with a glowing NASA Meatball in its chest, reminiscent of ET’s heart light. The robot’s name is Valkyrie and she was created by a team at the Johnson Space Center as part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a contest designed to find the life-saving robot of the future. While NASA’s current robot — Robonaut 2 – is just now getting a pair of legs, “Val” (officially named “R5″ by NASA) is a 1.9 meter tall, 125 kilogram, (6-foot 2-inch, 275-pound) rescue robot that can walk over multiple kinds of terrain, climb a ladder, use tools, and even drive.

According to an extensive article about the new robot in IEEE Spectrum, “This means that Valkyrie has to be capable of operating in the same spaces that a person would operate in, under the control of humans who have only minimal training with robots, which is why the robot’s design is based on a human form.”

Why is NASA building more robots? The thinking is that NASA could send human-like robots to Mars before they send humans. Right now, Valkyrie is not space-rated, but the team at JSC is just getting started.

She’s loaded with cameras, LIDAR, SONAR, is strong and powerful, and is just a great-looking robot.

“We really wanted to design the appearance of this robot to be one that was, when you saw it you’d say, wow, that’s awesome.” Nicolaus Radford, Project and Group Lead at the Dexterous Robotics Lab and JSC.