Astronauts go through years of training before they take off, but there’s not very many good ways to simulate the airless vacuum outside Earth’s atmosphere. Here’s a quick tour of the spots around the world that our rocketmen visit to get ready for the final frontier.
There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.
The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.
Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.
“It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”
Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.
It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.
“It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”
But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.
In May, when researchers contacted the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) for the first time in 16 years, that a decade’s old spacecraft still had enough juice to phone home might have come as a surprise. Launched in 1978, here was an object some 36 years old that had better battery life than some of the most advanced technology in existence today.
But that’s precisely it: ISEE-3, and other spacecraft, like it, don’t run on batteries. And they likely won’t in the future, either. Sure, battery technology has certainly improved since ISEE-3’s heyday, and solar technology is certainly more efficient than it once was, too. But the truth is, the long-distance space craft of the future tasked with exploring the outer planets and beyond will likely be powered with the same thing we’ve been using for decades: plutonium-238. That's right, we're talking about nuclear power.
When sending unmanned vehicles into space, you really only have two options for power: light from the sun, or heat from a nuclear source. Obviously, the former is preferred where possible. It’s relatively cheap to harness, and there’s practically an unlimited supply. But the sun has other limits. Light can only travel so far, which means the farther you travel, the less electricity you can produce. In some places, such as parts of the moon, there are permanently shadowed regions which never receive the sun’s light. Even on planets such as Mars, which are still close enough to harness the sun’s rays, dust dramatically reduces the efficacy of solar panels over time.
For deep-space missions, and missions to hostile environments where light from the sun won’t do, NASA’s only other option is to harness the heat generated by a slowly decaying hunk of radioactive material – in this case, plutonium-238 – with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG. This process turns heat into electricity, and in some cases there is even excess heat that can be used to warm the components of a spacecraft or rover too. Make no mistake, though, this is old technology.
Many people have a difficult time comprehending the massive proportions of the International Space Station (ISS). Weighing almost one million pounds, and filling the footprint of a football field, it is by far the largest man-made object in space. The ship has an acre of reflective solar arrays that provide power for the crew and also help make the ISS the third brightest object in the night sky (behind the Moon and Venus). It is easily viewed with the naked eye. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.
Before we talk about how to find the ISS in the sky, let’s take minute to review some basic orbital mechanics. The ISS has a roughly circular orbit (as opposed to elliptical) at an altitude of about 260 miles. The plane of orbit is tilted 51.6 degrees from the plane of the equator. If you flatten the Earth onto a map, one orbital path takes on the shape of a single sine wave. That is often the image seen on the large wall displays in photos of the Mission Control Center.
Each orbit takes roughly 90 minutes to complete. During that time, the Earth is rotating as well. Due to this relative movement, every orbit of the ISS overflies a path that is a little west of its previous orbit. When the paths of multiple orbits are displayed on a flattened Earth, the image is a series of identical sine waves with a slight and equal offset. The real advantage to this constant path shifting is that the ISS overflies pretty much all of the Earth between 51.6 degrees latitude north and south. This is great for science experiments aboard the ISS that require Earth observation. It is also a boon for those of us stuck on the ground who want to catch a glimpse of this enormous machine.
"NASA and its aerospace industry partners have worked together for more than four years to develop subsystems,spacecraft, and launch vehicles that will lead to safe and reliable transportation to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station from the United States on American systems." After teasing the return of human spaceflight in the US, NASA today announced its Commercial Crew Program, tapping both Boeing and SpaceX to develop and test vehicles to transport astronauts to the ISS. Contracts of $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion were awarded to the two companies, respectively, with the target of flight certification by 2017, which includes one manned test flight. SpaceX will be using the Dragon 2 capsule unveiled earlier this year, while Boeing will use its CST-100 spacecraft. That capsule will even feature wireless internet for communications, according to Boeing.
When Adam commissioned us to make a hybrid NASA Mercury space program suit, we didn’t give much thought to the helmet or really any of the “hard parts” with the exception of the neck and wrist rings. We just figured that if anyone was interested in buying another suit, they would have to find a helmet on their own, and that we’d probably have to re-cast or find standalone MIG neck rings. Adam advised us they would be hard to find.
But initial feedback from prospective customers indicated that we might not be able to sell many suits without including helmets and accessories. Pictured below are Adam’s suits. One with rings on the left and one without rings on right:
Since Adam supplied the neck ring for the first build and we returned it to him, we had to find another for our third suit. We weren’t really in a hurry to find one but weeks passed and we saw nothing except MIG helmets with rings, so we bought one hoping maybe we could sell the MIG helmet later. The upside of buying the helmet and ring was understanding how the ring locked onto the helmet as Adam never sent us his helmet at this point for scrutiny. Now that we’ve had a closer look at his helmet during the Comic-Con Incognito walk, we can see he manufactured a similar locking system we have based on the MIG helmet and neck ring design.
I remember Adam saying he needed another neck ring so I kept looking and eventually found one and bought it. Because it was expensive we considered recasting it in four-part molds for future projects. It wouldn’t be functional but may look good enough for some buyers.
When I told Adam what we were planning and asked him where he got his helmets he offered to send us his spare helmet blank to re-cast but we would have to return it as it was his only one. I’ve never had quite this experience before. We’ve been lent stuff in the past but nothing that couldn’t be replaced easy enough. It was very generous for Adam to send his helmet so we didn't have to sculpt one from scratch, and really aligns with his philosophy of opening these projects up to makers. Above is a photo of what he sent over. We were absolutely thrilled to have access to it!
Produced in 1965, this Soviet documentary was produced to educate citizens about Soviet rocket technology and what astronomers knew back then about the Moon. Its second half is a fantastic imagination of how humans might colonize the Moon in the distant future. Just great retrofuturist fodder, even if you can't understand the Russian. "The film consists of two parts: popular scientific and science-fiction. In the first part in the popular form the modern (1965) scientific convergence on the Moon are stated. In the second part the director and the artist create a picture of the future of the Moon." More context about the production of this video on The NewStatesman. (h/t io9)
Like many good ideas, Dave Boucher’s Moon mining drill started as a sketch on a napkin. That was in 1999 (just one year after the space drilling adventures of Armageddon). But sometime this fall, his company Deltion Innovation’s latest prototype of a real Moon drill will go through one of its final tests. And with any luck, DESTIN — which stands for Drilling Exploration & Sample Technology Integrated — will be chosen to spearhead NASA’s lunar prospecting mission in 2018 or 2019, bringing us one step closer to leaving Earth forever and moving to the Moon.
“Space mining has now become a must-do activity for every space agency in the world,” Boucher said in an interview earlier this year. “They all recognize that they have to be able to go mine in space just to support the missions that they're planning.”
In other words, space mining isn’t so much about monetizing the supposed wealth of precious resources contained on the Moon’s surface (though, yes, there is apparently a lot). Not yet, at least. For now, it’s all about figuring out how to make future missions, manned or otherwise, self-sustainable — what’s known as In-Situ Resource Utilization — should we have any hope for the long-term exploration and colonization of world’s beyond our own.
Of central interest for NASA’s prospecting mission are the pockets of water ice that satellite imagery believe exist in the Moon’s Polar Regions. “Water and oxygen extracted from lunar soil could be used for life support,” suggests a NASA document describing the eventual mission, “and methane produced from the Martian atmosphere could be used to refuel spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.”
But we don’t know it’s there for sure. And that’s where Boucher’s drill comes in.
(Editor's note: One of Adam's favorite costumes is his Mercury program spacesuit, which we've previously featured here on Tested. It's one of the costumes he wore at this year's Comic-Con. Elizabeth Galeria of The Magic Wardrobe, who made the costume in collaboration with Adam, reached out to us to share the process of designing and patterning this suit to meet Adam's specific needs and requests. This is the first in a series of articles in which Elizabeth and her partner explain their fabrication process fort his project. Feel free to ask Elizabeth--Tested user "antylyz"--questions directly in the comments section below.)
An accurate replica of any costume or prop is only as good as the source images and what budget a “detail enthusiast” is willing to spend to get what’s envisioned. When Adam approached me to make him a Mercury suit, his celebrity factored into my quote. I really wanted to do this project having been a fan of MythBusters for many years.
Adam had no shortage of images to show me so quoting him was pretty easy. It’s not often you get 100+ high-res images of the actual suits from the Smithsonian so I was able to count stitches-per-inch as is often the case needed for detail enthusiasts.
Adam was very specific that all he wanted was someone to do the “soft parts” and he would provide all the “hard parts,” which made the project easy. Adam was also very specific about what details he liked about the various iterations of suits used by NASA in the Mercury space program, and he focused on the following image in particular.
The biggest challenge in almost any replica costume or prop is finding the same or similar fabrics and materials used to make the original. Adam was very specific in describing the fabric he thought the original suit was made of. It's something he has described in his videos about the suit.
"Ian Clark, principal investigator of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, takes us through a play-by-play of NASA's recent 'flying saucer' Test in Hawaii, using high-definition video shot from cameras on board the test vehicle." NASA's LDSD technology demonstration mission explores the use of a supersonic parachute for use with landers on future missions to Mars.
Last Thursday, NASA JPL announced the loadout for the still-as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover. The follow up to 2012's Curiosity will carry seven scientific instruments, selected from 58 proposals made by engineers and researchers worldwide. The 2020 rover is based on Curiosity's proven chassis and landing system design, with upgraded hardware to explore its surroundings. (A landing site has not yet been determined.) Among the new gear--which will be developed by partners at academic and private institutions--is the Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with the ability to zoom. While filmmaker James Cameron was involved with the development of the imaging system on Curiosity (NASA eventually nixed his 3D camera system), the Mastcam-Z design will be spearheaded by Arizona State University's Jim Bell. And yes, the current plan is for it to be a stereoscopic camera system.
A mystery package arrives at the office, sent by a Tested reader! We could not be more stoked by what we find inside. Thanks for the awesome mailbag, Grant!
In the mid-60s, the Soviet Union staged an international exhibition to showcase the achievements of Communism to westerners. Included in the exhibition was a never-flown, production version of one of the USSR's Luna moon probes. This io9 article details the caper, but The National Security Archive has a declassified version of the original report as well as several other fascinating declassified documents, including details about the Navy's attempts to use the Moon for untraceable communication.2
The Fermi Paradox is endlessly fascinating to me. The paradox is simple--there are somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion stars in our galaxy, cosmologically speaking our Sun is relatively young, and our species is brand new. If life is abundant in the universe, why haven't we heard from anyone else yet?
This article does a good job breaking down the possible reasons we haven't made contact yet. The explanations range from the macabre to the comical. Personally, I'm optimistic that the first species that developed interstellar travel hasn't been wiping out any other species that can potentially compete with them. I also would hope that we don't just live "far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the galaxy." Getting any resolution to the Fermi Paradox would frankly be terrifying, but it's a good excuse to spend a few minutes this weekend laying with your back on the ground and contemplating the infinite.
When was the last time you saw an image of Pluto? Think about it. You've probably seen renders and simulated images – but what about an actual, high-quality picture of the minor planet's surface? Don't feel bad if you're drawing a blank. Real pictures of Pluto just don't exist – none more than a few pixels in size, at least. Even with the best and most modern technology at our disposal today, we still can't produce a decent picture of the dwarf planet from here on Earth.
But around this time next year, thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006, we'll finally catch our first high-quality glimpses of how the solar system's most distant celestial object actually looks.
The best pictures we currently have of Pluto date from 1994.
If you can believe it, the best pictures we currently have of Pluto date from 1994. And, really, they're only pictures in the most liberal sense: blurry, blown-up surface maps made from source images mere pixels across. Taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, the orbiting camera is only just powerful enough to resolve the planet's surface colour – "a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange and charcoal-black terrain" – making geological observations out of the question.
"To a close approximation, Pluto and the moon are the same size." explains Dr. Marc Buie, a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, and part of the team that captured the planet's first Hubble images. "[But] Pluto is an awful lot farther away."
In fact, from our planet's surface, Pluto is about 180,000 times smaller on the sky at that distance than the Earth's moon.
That hasn't given researchers much to go on – not in the visual wavelength, anyhow. But as you read this article, the New Horizons spacecraft is nearly 30 astronomical units from the sun – or, about the distance from the sun to earth multiplied by 30. Travelling at a rate of about 1 million miles each day, it is the fastest spacecraft ever built. Its primary mission is to image the surface of Pluto, its moons, and beyond, and it is now about 90% of the way to its long-awaited flyby in July 2015.
From The Atlantic: "Every atom in our bodies was fused in an ancient star. NASA astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller explains how the iron in our blood connects us to one of the most violent acts in the universe-a supernova explosion-and what the universe might look like when all the stars die out."
Elon Musk's dreams of privatized space exploration are one step closer to reality. At a highly-publicized event in Southern California last night, Musk's SpaceX unveiled its Dragon V2 space capsule, which the company plans to use to send US astronauts to the International Space Station. The commercial space shuttle--the first of its kind--is a retrofit of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which has already completed three successful cargo deliveries to the ISS. The development of the crewed version was conducted in partnership with NASA, which currently spends over $70 a head to send a US astronaut to the ISS via Russia's Soyuz program. Musk hopes that amortized over the space of 10 flights per craft, Dragon V2 flights will cost less than $10 million per seat. ArsTechnica was on site for the debut, and runs through Dragon V2's interesting features, including its use of the same 17-inch touchscreens that Musk's Tesla uses in its Model S car. (Cars that share technology with commercial space shuttles is a huge marketing tie-in opportunity.) The first manned test flight may take place in two years, with launch taking place from a recently-leased launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. Watch the full video from the unveiling event below.2
Aerospace technology is typically an incremental game of inches. Most new aircraft or spacecraft designs consist primarily of proven technologies sprinkled with a few new ideas to nudge the limits a little at a time. It is rare to unveil a design that leaps ahead by using numerous unproven concepts. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was one very notable exception. First flown in 1964, the Blackbird was an aircraft so advanced that it still had no peers when it was retired 34 years later.
What made the Blackbird so unique was its ability to fly very fast (Mach 3.3) and very high (85,000 feet). This performance allowed it to overfly nearly any area of the world and take surveillance photos with relative impunity. Intercepting fighter pilots could only shake their fists as the SR-71 flew high above their reach. To escape surface-to-air missiles, Blackbird pilots would just ease the throttles forward and outrun them.
Throughout its service life, the SR-71 was a very closely-guarded and coveted asset. Not only was it stuffed full of proprietary technology, it was also extremely expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate. The US Air Force wouldn’t let just anyone fly their prized machine. It implemented a very rigorous selection and training process for the pilots and Reconnaissance Systems Officers (RSO) that would fill the Blackbird’s seats.
Terry Pappas was one of those pilots who earned the title “Habu” – the unofficial name given to the SR-71 and its flight crew in a nod to the venomous snake that the airplane is said to resemble. Pappas spent more than 5 years in the SR-71 program and flew numerous operational missions over hostile airspace. His book, SR-71, The Blackbird, Q&A, explains the full gamut of his time in the Blackbird.
Here are some of the most interesting bits I learned from his book, as well as a few follow-up questions I was able to ask Pappas directly.