NASA’s Ames Director Announces “100 Year Starship”

NASA's Ames Center Director, Simon "Pete" Worden has announced that development of next-generation propulsion technologies are underway. Image Credit: NASA


The Director of NASA’s Ames Center, Pete Worden has announced an initiative to move space flight to the next level. This plan, dubbed the “Hundred Year Starship,” has received $100,000 from NASA and $ 1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He made his announcement on Oct. 16. Worden is also hoping to include wealthy investors in the project. NASA has yet to provide any official details on the project.

Worden also has expressed his belief that the space agency was now directed toward settling other planets. However, given the fact that the agency has been redirected toward supporting commercial space firms, how this will be achieved has yet to be detailed. Details that have been given have been vague and in some cases contradictory.

The Ames Director went on to expound how these efforts will seek to emulate the fictional starships seen on the television show Star Trek. He stated that the public could expect to see the first prototype of a new propulsion system within the next few years. Given that NASA’s FY 2011 Budget has had to be revised and has yet to go through Appropriations, this time estimate may be overly-optimistic.

One of the ideas being proposed is a microwave thermal propulsion system. This form of propulsion would eliminate the massive amount of fuel required to send crafts into orbit. The power would be “beamed” to the space craft. Either a laser or microwave emitter would heat the propellant, thus sending the vehicle aloft. This technology has been around for some time, but has yet to be actually applied in a real-world vehicle.

The project is run by Dr. Kevin L.G. Parkin who described it in his PhD thesis and invented the equipment used. Along with him are David Murakami and Creon Levit. One of the previous workers on the program went on to found his own company in the hopes of commercializing the technology used.

For Worden, the first locations that man should visit utilizing this revolutionary technology would not be the moon or even Mars. Rather he suggests that we should visit the red planet’s moons, Phobos and Deimos. Worden believes that astronauts can be sent to Mars by 2030 for around $10 billion – but only one way. The strategy appears to resemble the ‘Faster-Better-Cheaper’ craze promoted by then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin during the 1990s.

DARPA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense whose purview is the development of new technology to be used by the U.S. military. Some previous efforts that the agency has undertaken include the first hypertext system, as well as other computer-related developments that are used everyday. DARPA has worked on space-related projects before, working on light-weight satellites (LIGHTSAT), the X-37 space plane, the FALCON Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) and a number of other programs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA has been involved with a number of advanced technology projects. Image Credit: DARPA

Source: Kurzweil

Could the World Run on Solar and Wind Power?

More than 3,300 solar panels have been erected on a vacant five acres at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman


Today, the total oil and natural gas production provides about 60 percent of global energy consumption. This percentage is expected to peak about 10 to 30 years from now, and then be followed by a rapid decline, due to declining oil reserves and, hopefully, sources of renewable energy that technologies that will become more economically viable. But will there be the technology breakthroughs needed to make clean and exhaustible energy cost effective?

Nobel prize winner Walter Kohn, Ph.D., from the University of California Santa Barbara said that the continuous research and development of alternate energy could soon lead to a new era in human history in which two renewable sources — solar and wind — will become Earth’s dominant contributor of energy.

“These trends have created two unprecedented global challenges”, Kohn said, speaking at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting. “One is the threatened global shortage of acceptable energy. The other is the unacceptable, imminent danger of global warming and its consequences.”

The nations of the world need a concerted commitment to a changeover from the current era, dominated by oil plus natural gas, to a future era dominated by solar, wind, and alternative energy sources, Kohn said, and he sees that beginning to happen.

The global photovoltaic energy production increased by a factor of about 90 and wind energy by a factor of about 10 over the last decade. Kohn expects vigorous growth of these two energies to continue during the next decade and beyond, thereby leading to a new era, what he calls the SOL/WIND era, in human history, in which solar and wind energy have become the earth’s dominant alternative energies.

Kohn noted that this challenge require a variety of responses. “The most obvious is continuing scientific and technical progress providing abundant and affordable alternative energies, safe, clean and carbon-free,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges might be leveling off global population, as well as energy consumption levels.

Source: American Chemical Society

Solar Powered Airplane Successfully Flies Through the Night

Solar Impulse's Chief Executive Officer and pilot Andre Borschberg flyes in the solar-powered HB-SIA prototype airplane for its first night flight attempt near Payerne airport July 7, 2010. Credit: KEYSTONE/Dominic Favre/POOL/SOLAR IMPULSE


After flying for over 26 straight hours, pilot André Borschberg landed the solar-powered Solar Impulse HB-SIA airplane to cheers and applause at the Payerne airbase in Switzerland, successfully completing the goal of flying the aircraft through the night. According to Bertrand Piccard, president of Solar Impulse, there was power to spare, with over three hours of energy remaining in the sun-gathering lithium batteries. “This is a highly symbolic moment: flying by night using solely solar power is a stunning manifestation of the potential that clean technologies offer today to reduce the dependency of our society on fossil fuels!” Piccard said. “We are on the verge of the perpetual flight.”

With an official flight time of 26 hours and 9 minutes, the lightweight carbon fiber plane reached a a maximum altitude of 8,700 m (28,543 ft), a top speed of 68 knots (ground speed), an average speed of 23 knots. The HB-SIA flew solely on solar power, gathering and storing it during the daylight hours, and using the energy to fly through the night.

Solar Impulse flies towards the night. Credit: KEYSTONE/POOL/Dominic Favre/Solar Impulse

“During the whole of the flight, I just sat there and watched the battery charge level rise and rise! Sitting in a plane producing more energy than it consumes is a fantastic feeling”, said Borschberg, CEO and co-founder of the Solar Impulse project.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA has 12,000 solar cells built into its 64.3-meter (193-foot) wings, and is a prototype for an aircraft that the Solar Impulse team hope to fly around the world in a continuous flight in 2012.

Solar impulse weights 1,600 kg (3,500 lb), and is powered by four electric motors.

“Nothing can prevent us from another day and night, and the myth of perpetual flight,” a jubilant Piccard said at a press conference following the flight.

Update: Here’s a video from Solar Impulse, as the team waited for the sunrise:

Source: Solar Impulse, Solar Impulse webcast

Here’s an article about the biggest airplane.

Japanese Firm Designing Futuristic Space Mega-Projects

The Luna Ring, a belt of solar collecting panels along the Moon's equator. Credit: Shimizu


Space based solar power? How about a Moon-based solar collector that would beam energy back to Earth. This is just one idea proposed by a 200-year-old Japanese construction company, Shimizu that prides itself in forward-thinking technology and structure development. For this “Luna Ring,” an array of solar cells would extend like a belt along the entire 11,000 km lunar equator, and laser power transmission facilities would beam a high-energy-density laser towards receiving stations on Earth.

See more on the Luna Ring, plus plans for orbiting hotels, Moon bases, mega-pyramid cities, and more, below.

Energy gather on the Moon would be beamed back to Earth. Credit: Shimizu.

For this structure to be successful, teams of astronauts would have to support robotic surface operation on site. So, they would need a lunar base. Shimizu has that design in mind, too.

A proposed lunar base made of hexagonal structures. Credit: Shimizu

Lunar bases could be constructed using concrete made from lunar regolith. Using a hexagonal shape would allow for multi-directional future extension of the structure. Unmanned construction systems will be a critical matter in the severe lunar environment. The concept of self-assembling structures using membranes and air-inflation systems could realize light-weight structures and reduce transportation costs. Shimizu is also developing construction robot technologies that could be applied to constructing a lunar base, minimizing the hazards of manned activities.

An interior view of a potential lunar base. Credit: Shimizu

For long-term manned mission, the interior of base should be designed considering 1/6 G gravity environment.

The Shimizu Corporation says they have been accumulating technological skills over 200 years and would welcome the challenge of applying them to the new frontier of the moon, while continuing R&D on structures, materials, construction systems, and design of lunar bases.

A space elevator hotel, 240 km above the Earth. Credit: Shimizu

Shimizu has this concept for a space hotel, which includes a space elevator, approximately 240 km long, for “easy” access from Earth (building a space elevator will not be easy), but visiting spacecraft could dock as well. This large complex structure would be composed of several modules, such as a lobby, restaurants, and an area for recreation.

he Mega-City Pyramid stands 2,000 meters (1.25 miles) high. Credit: Shimizu

Shimizu is also looking at how they could build incredible structures on Earth that would house people and buildings on the oceans. The Mega-City Pyramid is a self-contained city for one million people. The basic structure—an assembly of regular octahedral units composed of shafts made from lightweight materials such as carbon fiber would be a project of unprecedented scale and proportion.

This video provides a look at some of the potential problems and hurdles to overcome for this type of structure:

Floating environmentally green islands with cities in the air. Credit: Shimizu

This “green” floating village would be almost like a giant lily pad floating on the water. Shimizu wants to create these cities that would act just like a lily, absorbing CO2 like a plant, as well as using other environmental technologies to achieve a carbon negative system. Solar power and resources from the ocean, as well as converting waste into energy would be used to give the floating city 100% self-sufficiency.

Visit the Shimizu website for more information about the company, and see their “dream” section for more information about these futuristic mega-projects.

Source: Shimizu, via Pink Tentacle

ISS Now Has Live Access to the Internet

The International Space Station orbiting Earth. Credit: NASA

Talk about a truly ‘world-wide’ web! As the astronauts aboard the International Space Station orbit Earth at 28,000 kph (17,500 mph) they now have the ultimate wireless connection and direct, live access to the internet. The station received a special software upgrade this week, called Crew Support LAN, which gives astronauts the ability to browse and use the Web. Previously, emails, news, and Twitter messages were sent to and from the ISS in uplink and downlink packages, so for example, Twitter (which NASA has embraced wholeheartedly) messages from the astronauts were downlinked to mission control in Houston, and someone there posted them on the astronauts’ Twitter accounts. Now, it’s live. Expedition 22 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer made first use of the new system today when he posted the first unassisted update to his Twitter account, @Astro_TJ, from the space station:

“Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station — the 1st live tweet from Space! 🙂 More soon, send your ?s”

Astronauts will be subject to the same computer use guidelines as government employees on Earth. In addition to this new capability, the crew will continue to have official e-mail, Internet Protocol telephone and limited videoconferencing capabilities.

This personal Web access takes advantage of existing communication links to and from the station and gives astronauts the ability to browse and use the Web. The system will provide astronauts with direct private communications to enhance their quality of life during long-duration missions by helping to ease the isolation associated with life in a closed environment.

During periods when the station is actively communicating with the ground using high-speed Ku-band communications, the crew will have remote access to the Internet via a ground computer. The crew will view the desktop of the ground computer using an onboard laptop and interact remotely with their keyboard touchpad.

To follow Twitter updates from all the astronauts, there is one centralized Twitter account for all: NASA_Astronauts

You can also follow Universe Today and me (Nancy Atkinson) on Twitter.

NASA Unveils Personal Aircraft

This artist's representation shows the view of the pilot for the one-man stealth plane. Credit: NASA Langley/Analytical Mechanics Associates

Forget about jetpacks or flying cars. How about your own personal stealth aircraft? NASA has unveiled the Puffin, an experimental electrically propelled, super-quiet, tilt-rotor, hover-capable one-man aircraft. According to Scientific American, the 3.7-meter-long, 4.1-meter-wingspan craft is designed with lightweight carbon-fiber composites to weigh in at 135 kilograms (not including 45 kilograms of rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries.) The Puffin can cruise at 240 kilometers per hour, but for those high speed chases, can zoom at more than 480 kph. See video below.

Since it doesn’t have an air-breathing engine, the Puffin is not limited by thin air. So, basically, it doesn’t have a flight ceiling. The designers say it could go up to about 9,150 meters before its energy runs low enough to drive it to descend. With current state-of-the-art batteries, it has a range of just 80 kilometers if cruising, “but many researchers are proposing a tripling of current battery energy densities in the next five to seven years, so we could see a range of 240 to 320 kilometers by 2017,” says researcher Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He and his colleagues unveiled the Puffin design on January 20, 2010 at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

For takeoff and landing, the Puffin stands upright. But during flight the whole aircraft pitches forward, putting the the pilot in the prone position, like in a hang glider.

Of course, the original idea for this personal aircraft is for covert military operations. But if they can design them safe enough and cheap enough, everyone will want one. It could change our ideas about electric propulsion and personal aircraft.

By March, the researchers plan on finishing a one third–size, hover-capable Puffin demonstrator, and in the three months following that they will begin investigating how well it transitions from cruise to hover flight.

See SciAm for more info.

Hat tip to my sister Alice!

Anti-Gravity Treadmill Developed from NASA Technology

Ever wonder what it would be like to walk on the Moon or run on Mars? A treadmill developed using NASA technology can provide users the feeling of moving about in less than 1 G. Anti Gravity treadmills, sold under the name of Alter-G, are becoming common in hospitals, rehab centers, and sports facilities, and just about every professional sports team in North America has one. They are a bit pricey for individuals to afford, but athletes and physical therapists say the device is a fantastic addition to their exercise repertoire.

Anti G treadmills allow people to improve mobility and health, recover from injury and surgery more effectively, overcome medical challenges that limit movement, and enhance physical performance. Runners and other athletes use the anti gravity treadmills to maintain their fitness level after a minor injury, without adding stress to their injury.

The Alter-G treadmill creates a seal around the user’s waist and then inflates to create a pressurized environment that can take away up to 80% of the user’s body weight, lessening the pounding to the joints.
The technology was first proposed for use on the space station to actually increase the amount of gravity felt by the body by using differential air pressure in space to mimic the Earth’s gravity to prevent bone loss and muscle deterioration.

G-Trainer.  Credit: NASA
G-Trainer. Credit: NASA

Ames Research Center scientist, Robert Whalen, who came up with the idea said the anti-G trainer evolved directly from his original idea of how to add weight to an astronaut’s body during treadmill exercise in the low gravity of space. On Earth, it works just the opposite, giving users an astronaut-like experience.

A variety of patients—whether suffering from brain injury, neurological disorders, athletic injuries, or other stresses on the joints such as arthritis or morbid obesity—now use the NASA-derived technology in physical therapy.

In order for the G-Trainer to control air pressure effectively, users first have to don specially designed shorts which attach to a waist-level enclosure. After the person’s lower body is sealed in an enclosure – basically a big plastic bag around the treadmill, the system performs a calibration, adjusting to the person’s size and weight. Then running speed and incline can be chosen, along with what percent of weight should be removed. If a patient desires more unloading—more weightlessness—a button is simply pressed on a touch screen, and the air pressure increases, lifting the body, reducing strain, and further minimizing impact on the legs.

Prices run from USD $24,000 to $75,000 or leases for about $500 a month.

For more information:

Alter-G website
NASA Spinoffs

Designing a Better Astronaut Glove

If you can build a better mousetrap, then you can certainly build a better glove for astronauts! Making a glove that both protects the hands of the astronauts in the harsh environment of space or on the Moon, and allowing them the dexterity to manipulate tools is a tough challenge for NASA. That’s why they are holding the second Astronaut Glove Challenge on November 19th, with a $400,000 prize for the best glove.

The layers of protection that an astronaut glove needs to have to shield against micrometeorites in space and insulate the hand of the wearer make for one rigid glove. The gloves are also pressurized, which makes them more rigid and further detracts from the mobility of an astronaut. NASA has held one previous competition to see who could build a better glove, in 2007, and the winner was Peter Homer, a former aerospace engineer. He took home the $200,000 prize last time, and is expected to return this year to compete against at least one other team. To read more about his story and see a video of his glove in operation, visit NASA’s page about him. Homer was also featured on Wired Magazine’s “Geek Dad” series, and a video interview is available here.

The last competition involved performing a series of tasks inside of a box that is under vacuum to measure how fatiguing to the fingers the glove was. The inside bladder of the glove was subjected to a burst test, in which it was pressurized to the point at which it bursts. The amount of force required to bend each finger of the glove was also measured.

These same rules will apply in this year’s competition, but the added challenge will be to perform all of these tests inside of an improved thermal micrometeorite garment, the outside layer of the glove that protects the astronaut’s hand from damage. This is basically a complete glove that is ready for operation in space.

NASA has been holding several challenges with some hefty prizes to incite development in space-related technology. The Centennial Challenge program most recently gave away prizes for the Power Beaming Challenge and the Lunar Lander Challenge. The prize will be provided by NASA, but the competition is managed by Volanz Aerospace Inc. of Owings, Md. and sponsored by Secor Strategies, LLC of Titusville, Fla.

Good luck to all the competitors, and may the best glove win!

Source: NASA, Astronaut Glove Challenge

Infrared Spectroscopy

Silicates in Alien Asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Infrared spectroscopy is spectroscopy in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is a vital part of infrared astronomy, just as it is in visual, or optical, astronomy (and has been since lines were discovered in the spectrum of the Sun, in 1802, though it was a couple of decades before Fraunhofer began to study them systematically).

For the most part, the techniques used in IR spectroscopy, in astronomy, are the same or very similar to those used in the visual waveband; confusingly, then, IR spectroscopy is part of both infrared astronomy and optical astronomy! These techniques involve use of mirrors, lenses, dispersive media such as prisms or gratings, and ‘quantum’ detectors (silicon-based CCDs in the visual waveband, HgCdTe – or InSb or PbSe – arrays in IR); at the long-wavelength end – where the IR overlaps with the submillimeter or terahertz region – there are somewhat different techniques.

As infrared astronomy has a much longer ground-based history than a space-based one, the terms used relate to the windows in the Earth’s atmosphere where lower absorption spectroscopy makes astronomy feasible … so there is the near-IR (NIR), from the end of the visual (~0.7 &#181m) to ~3 &#181m, the mid (to ~30 &#181m), and the far-IR (FIR, to 0.2 mm).

As with spectroscopy in the visual and UV wavebands, IR spectroscopy in astronomy involves detection of both absorption (mostly) and emission (rather less common) lines due to atomic transitions (the hydrogen Paschen, Brackett, Pfund, and Humphreys series are all in the IR, mostly NIR). However, lines and bands due to molecules are found in the spectra of nearly all objects, across the entire IR … and the reason why space-based observatories are needed to study water and carbon dioxide (to take just two examples) in astronomical objects. One of the most important class of molecules (of interest to astronomers) is PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – whose transitions are most prominent in the mid-IR (see the Spitzer webpage Understanding Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons for more details).

Looking for more info on how astronomers do IR spectroscopy? Caltech has a brief introduction to IR spectroscopy. The ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has several dedicated instruments, including VISIR (which is both an imager and spectrometer, working in the mid-IR); CIRPASS, a NIR integrated field unit spectrograph on Gemini; Spitzer’s IRS (a mid-IR spectrograph); and LWS on the ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (a FIR spectrometer).

Universe Today stories related to IR spectroscopy include Infrared Sensor Could Be Useful on Earth Too, Search for Origins Programs Shortlisted, and Jovian Moon Was Probably Captured.

Infrared spectroscopy is covered in the Astronomy Cast episode Infrared Astronomy.


WiFi in Space Coming Soon?

Mike Massimino, AKA Astro_Mike on Twitter, works on his computer during the STS-125 mission. Credit: NASA

Although current astronauts are Twittering and blogging from space, it’s a cumbersome process as the ISS, shuttle and Soyuz do not have internet access. Instead, they have to downlink their information to mission control, where someone posts it to the web. But if future commercial space travelers or astronauts living on the Moon want to blog, Tweet and share their experiences real-time, will it be possible? Well, a group of engineers are working on applying the same wireless systems that keep our mobile phones, laptops and other devices connected to the web to a new generation of networked space hardware. They say that wireless technologies will likely be important part of future space exploration, not only for human communication but for transfer of data and commands.

The Wireless Working Group (WWG) of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Services (CCSDS) is a group of engineers that coordinates wireless research among global space agencies and promotes interoperability of spacecraft data systems.

Multiple microsensors like this one could be scattered across planetary surfaces to gather more information than a single lander could provide. The microsensors would then configure a wireless network to assemble data for its relay back to Earth.  Credit:  ESA
Multiple microsensors like this one could be scattered across planetary surfaces to gather more information than a single lander could provide. The microsensors would then configure a wireless network to assemble data for its relay back to Earth. Credit: ESA

They say that wireless sensor nodes placed throughout a spacecraft might function as a networked nervous system, yielding a wealth of currently inaccessible structural or environmental data to mission controllers. Similar nodes scattered across a planetary surface would generate a much higher scientific return than a single lander could, configuring a network to combine their findings for relaying to Earth.

And establishing ‘plug and play’ wireless networking between multiple spacecraft could enable the seamless transfer of data and commands. This would work for formation-flying satellite constellations and orbiter-lander-rover combinations , but proximity networks could be set up by any spacecraft within signal range as easily as a laptop plugs into a WiFi network.

Of course, the technology is still being developed and having Wifi in space isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but engineers say the underlying technologies are already with us, in the protocols delivering wireless connectivity to homes, offices and public places.

“This research is an example of us ‘spinning in’ technology developed elsewhere into the space sector,” said ESA data handling engineer Jean-François Dufour, who is part of the CCSDS. “Commercial wireless protocols such as the IEEE 802.11 family of standards for computer WiFi or sensor networking standards such as IEEE 802.15.4 are already available so we are assessing how they might transfer to the space environment.”

Source: ESA