For space agencies and the commercial space industry, the priorities of the next two decades are clear. First, astronauts will be sent to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, followed by the creation of permanent infrastructure that will allow them to say there for extended periods. Then, the first crewed missions will be sent to Mars, with follow-up missions every 26 months, culminating in the creation of surface habitats (and maybe a permanent base). To meet these objectives, space agencies are investigating next-generation propulsion, power, and life support systems.
This includes solar-electric propulsion (SEP), where solar energy is used to power extremely fuel-efficient Hall-Effect thrusters. Similarly, they are looking into nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and compact nuclear reactors, allowing for shorter transit times and providing a steady power supply for Lunar and Martian habitats. Beyond NASA, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has partnered with Rolls-Royce to develop nuclear systems for space exploration. In a recent tweet, the international auto and aerospace giant provided a teaser of what their “micro-reactor” will look like.
If human beings intend to become an interplanetary species (or interstellar, for that matter), then we are going to need new propulsion methods that combine a significant level of thrust with fuel-efficiency. One option that NASA has been exploring for decades is spacecraft that rely on nuclear power, which can take the form of nuclear-electric or nuclear-thermal propulsion (NEP/NTP).
In the current era of space exploration, other space agencies are looking into this technology as well. For instance, the UK Space Agency recently signed a contract with the British automotive engineering firm Rolls-Royce. As per their duties, Rolls-Royce will investigate applications for nuclear power and propulsion. Given the company’s record of mechanical, electrical, and nuclear power solutions
The UK aerospace company Reaction Engine Limited was founded in 1989 for the express purpose of creating engines that would lead to spaceplanes capable of horizontal take-off and landing (HOTOL). With support from the ESA, these efforts have resulted in the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). Once complete, this system will combine elements of jet and rocket propulsion to achieve hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 to Mach 25).
Recently, Reaction Engines passed a major milestone with the development of their SABRE engine. As the company announced earlier this week (on Tues. Oct. 22nd), their engineers conducted a successful test of a vital component – the engine’s heat exchange element (aka. precooler). What’s more, the test involved airflow temperatures equivalent to speeds of Mach 5, which is in the hypersonic range.
The one drawback of these spacecraft was the fact that it still took two rocket boosters and a huge external fuel tank to put them into orbit. This is where the Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) comes into play. With the help of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA), this revolutionary hypersonic engine recently took a big step towards fruition.
The final chapter in the saga of a wayward Mars lander was finally revealed today, as an international team released images showing the Beagle-2 lander’s final resting place on Mars.
Flashback to Christmas Day, 2003. While most folks gathered ‘round the tree and opened presents, the UK and European Space Agency awaited a gift from space. The Beagle-2 Mars lander had been released from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter six days prior, and was coasting towards a perilous landing in Isidis Planitia and was set to phone home.
All was going according to plan, and then… silence.
It’s the worst part of any mission, waiting for a lander to call back and say that it’s safe and sound on the surface of another world. As the hours turned into days, anxious engineers used NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank to listen for the signal.
Beagle-2 was declared lost a few weeks later on February 6th, 2004.
But now, there’s a final twist to the tale to tell.
The UK Space Agency, working with ESA and NASA announced today that debris from the landing site had been identified and that indicates — contrary to suspicions — that Beagle-2 did indeed make it to the surface of the Red Planet intact. New images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released today suggest that not only did Beagle-2 land, but that its airbags did indeed deploy properly and that the dish-shaped 1-meter in diameter spacecraft partially unfolded pocket-watch style after it had bounced to a stop.
“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” said ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration in a recent press release. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”
So, what went wrong with Beagle-2?
At this point, no further speculation as to what caused the lander to fall silent has been forthcoming, but today’s revelation is sure to rewrite the final saga of Beagle-2.
“Not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 remained a nagging worry,” said ESA’s Mars Express project manager Rudolf Schmidt. “Understanding now that Beagle-2 made it all the way down to the surface is excellent news.”
Speculation swirled across the internet earlier this week as the UK Space Agency and ESA suggested that new information as to the fate of Beagle-2 was forthcoming, over 11 years after the incident. Back in 2004, it was suggested that Beagle-2 had encountered higher levels of dust in the Martian atmosphere than expected, and that this in turn resulted in a failure of the spacecraft’s parachutes. Presumably, the lander then failed to slow down sufficiently and crashed on the surface of Mars, the latest victim of the Great Galactic Ghoul who seems to love dining on human-built spacecraft bound for the Red Planet.
The loss of Beagle-2 wasn’t only a blow to the UK and ESA, but to its principal investigator Colin Pillinger as well. Pillinger was involved in the search for Beagle-2 in later years, and also played a part in the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as well. Unfortunately, Pillinger passed away in May of last year from a brain hemorrhage. A portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater currently being explored by Opportunity was named Pillinger Point in his honor.
Today’s announcement has triggered a wave of congratulations that the 11-year mystery has been solved. There have even been calls on Twitter and social media to rename the Beagle-2 site Pillinger Station.
“The history of of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” Said Dr. David Parker, the Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency in a recent press release. “This finding makes the case that Beagle-2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”
Beagle-2 is about 2 metres across unfurled, and came to rest within 5 kilometres of its target location.
There have been false announcements of the discovery of Beagle-2 before. Back in late 2005, a claim was made that the lander had been spotted by Mars Global Surveyor, though later searches came to naught.
“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle-2 team must feel,” Said JPL’s MRO project scientist Richard Zurek in a recent press release. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task.”
MRO entered orbit in March 2006 and carries a 0.5 metre in diameter HiRISE camera capable of resolving objects just 0.3 metres across on the surface of Mars. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter that carried Beagle 2 is also still in operation, along with NASA’s aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. These were joined in orbit by MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter just last year.
Of course, getting to Mars is tough, and landing is even harder. Mars has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, but it’s so tenuous – 0.6% the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level – That it doesn’t provide a whole lot of usable drag.
To date, only NASA had successfully landed on Mars, and done it seven times – only the Mars Polar Lander failed back in 1999. The Russians fared much worse, with their most successful lander being Mars 3, which sent back only one blurry image before falling silent.
ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency hope to amend that with the launch of the ExoMars mission next year, slated to land on Mars in 2018.
I remember waiting with millions of other space fans for word back from Beagle 2 on Christmas Day 2003. Think back to what your internet connection was like over 11 years ago, in an era before smart phones, Twitter and Facebook. We’d just come off of the spectacular 2003 Mars opposition season, which provided the orbital geometry ideal for launching a mission to the Red Planet. This window only comes around once every 26 months.
Though Beagle 2 was a stationary lander akin to the Viking and Mars Phoenix missions, it had a robotic arm and a clever battery of experiments, including ones designed to search for life. The signal it was supposed to use to call home was designed by the UK pop rock band Blur, a jingle that never came.
Alas, we’ll have to wait to see what the alien plains around Isidis Planitia actually look like, just 13 degrees north of the Martian equator. But hey, a lingering mystery of the modern age of planetary exploration was solved this week.
Still, we’re now left with a new dilemma. Does this mean we’ll have to write a sequel to our science fiction short story The Hunt for Beagle?
The technology, which sounds straight out of a science-fiction movie, has enough reality to it for the United Kingdom government to offer $90.62 million (£60 million), in stages, to a company looking to develop the engine.
Skylon isn’t flight-ready yet, but so far the project did pass a United Kingdom Space Agency technical assessment. If completed, the UK Space Agency says Skylon is just one of many vehicles that could use this engine, which is called Sabre.
“The unique engine is designed to extract the oxygen it needs for low atmosphere flight from the air itself, paving the way for a new generation of spaceplanes which would be lighter, reusable and able to take off and launch from conventional airport runways,” the agency stated.
The money, stated Reaction Engines founder Alan Bond, will fund “the next phase in the development of its engine and heat management technology.” More specifically, this is what the company plans to use the funds for:
– Engine technical design work;
– Improving lightweight heat exchanger technology and manufacturing;
– Performing wind tunnel and flight testing of engine components;
– Doing a “ground demonstration” of the engine.
If all stays to schedule, Reaction Engines expects a Sabre prototype will be ready in 2017, with flight tests commencing in 2020.
The major goal of Sabre is to use hot air entering the engine to obtain the required oxygen for operations, rather than carrying the gas separately on board. The engine is supposed to switch to a “rocket mode” at 26,000 feet in altitude.
“This advantage enables a spaceplane to fly lighter from the outset and to make a single leap to orbit, rather than using and dumping propellant stages on the ascent – as is the case with current expendable rockets,” the UK Space Agency stated.
Reaction Engines promises Skylon would give “reliable access to space” through carrying payloads of up to 15 tonnes, but at only 2% of the cost of more conventional launch vehicles — namely, rockets. It remains to be seen if they will achieve that cost goal, but the funding is welcome news nonetheless for the company.