Monday, April 24, 2017

International and commercial interest in the Moon

NASA may be going back to the Moon. Or maybe not. Despite months of speculation and rumors about potential changes in the agency’s “Journey to Mars” plans for human exploration of Mars, so far there’s been no announcement of any major changes, other than the less-than-surprising news that the administration plans to cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

However, other space agencies remain interested in sending spacecraft, and perhaps people, to the Moon in the coming years. That interest was on display earlier this month at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an event that has increasingly taken on an international flavor, including dropping “National” from its name a few years ago.

But sometimes it can seem too international. A panel session at the conference April 4 featured leaders from a number of national space agencies. That number has been growing over the years, and this year it meant 15 space agency heads took to the stage in the main convention hall at the Broadmoor, from major agencies like NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos to smaller national agencies from Romania and Vietnam. The panel was so big that the agency leaders were arranged in two rows on the stage: a choir preaching a gospel of cooperation and collaboration to the conference attendees.

The panel was so large that, rather than give the same question to all speakers, moderator Bob Walker instead directed questions to various subsets of the full panel. To one subset he posed the question: what are your aspirations for the exploration of the Moon?

One of the panelists for that question, as it turned out, was Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator of NASA. He mentioned the agency’s plans to, in the 2020s, develop a “Deep Space Gateway” in cislunar space. That gateway is intended to prepare for human missions to Mars, but he left open the option of using it for human missions to the Moon as well by partners.

“The goal here is to see what we can prove out in the area around the Moon, work with our international partners on what we do at the surface of the Moon, and work with our public-private partnerships here in the US to understand the niche areas they would like to attack when it comes to the Moon,” he said.

Ger Nieuwpoort, director of the Netherlands Space Office, said his country’s plans for the Moon were tied to those of the European Space Agency, with a particular interest in science applications. “Science is an important driver for the Netherlands,” he said. That included, he said, the prospects for doing astronomy from the far side of the Moon.

By contrast, Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency and another member of ESA, took less of an interest in the Moon except as a way to support human missions to Mars. “The Moon can be very useful as an intermediate step to learn how to stay for long periods in space,” he said. “But the real future goal, for the long term, is really getting to the next challenge, which is Mars.”

While he wasn’t on the panel that got the question about lunar exploration, ESA director general Jan W├Ârner did put in a plug later in the session for his “Moon Village” concept of an international lunar base, which he said was essential before humans could go to Mars.

“We think that the Moon is a very important step. Mars is not the ultimate goal; humans will go further than Mars,” he said. The Moon, he added, offered “special opportunities” for developing new technologies, including the production and assembly of hardware as well as a source of resources.

“As some of you might know, I’m promoting the idea of international cooperation on the Moon. I call it ‘Moon Village’ with some misunderstandings,” he said. “It’s not just humans. Moon Village means robotic and human activities, private and public entities. Like a village on Earth, where different people are coming together to do something jointly, this is the Moon Village.”

“The Moon Village,” he added, “is part of our overall strategy: LEO, Moon, Mars.”

One country that might be interested in ESA’s Moon Village is China. Yulong Tian, secretary general of the China National Space Administration, outlined his country’s plans for robotic exploration of the Moon, including the Chang’e-5 sample return mission scheduled for launch late this year.

Future missions, he suggested, could include landers to the lunar poles to prospect for resources there to support human bases. “In the coming five to ten years we have a few more missions to the polar regions of the moon, including establishment of a lunar base, or part of the Moon Village,” he said.

Igor Komarov, director general of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, also supported human missions to the Moon before going to Mars. “We should go to the Moon,” he said at a press conference later the same day, in part to study issues associated with Mars missions. “It’s better to solve all these problems on the Moon before going to Mars.”

If at least some countries are on board, what about companies? At a press briefing at the conference April 3, Boeing provided an update to its “Path to Mars” architecture, which also calls for the development of an outpost in cislunar space. That concept looks very similar to NASA plans recently rolled out, and Boeing executives even called it the Deep Space Gateway, like NASA.

One difference, though, was that the Boeing plans included the option of adding a lunar lander to the habitat, power, and other modules that comprise the outpost. Boeing officials didn’t play up the inclusion of the module, which was included in handouts at the press conference that outlined the development of the gateway.

“The idea it to put enough infrastructure around the Moon that allows us to do two things,” said Peter McGrath, global sales and marketing director for space exploration at Boeing. “It allows either other governments, our government, or a commercial entity to go to the surface of the Moon, but it also serves as a staging point for our future exploration missions to Mars.”

Immediately after the heads-of-agencies session at Space Symposium, United Launch Alliance hosted a session to discuss its “Cislunar 1000” vision, the company’s 30-year plan that foresees 1,000 people living and working in cislunar space, including the Moon.

“As NASA and other people push deeper into deep space to explore, we want to develop the space between here and the Moon, and a self-sustaining economy will make that presence stick,” said Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA. “People will go to space because there are jobs in space. They will live there because they will have a better life there.”

Neither Bruno nor the panelists, who represented companies, organizations, and even the US Air Force, offered much in the way of updates for the Cislunar 1000 vision. Bruno said he sees ULA as “just the railroad” enabling the creation of that cislunar economy, one that will require a lot of companies.

Who those companies are remains to be seen. “There are three interesting threads that make our time special,” said Jim Keravala of Offworld, a company developing mining robots for use on the Earth and, eventually, the Moon. Those threads include a convergence of various technological trends, a “glut” of investment capital ready to invest in these efforts, and the development of customers.

“We are still not at a point in time where a single company or organization can create and close the chain from product development and service to end user development in space beyond GEO,” he said. Cislunar 1000, he said, creates an opportunity to bring together a “community of service providers and entrepreneurs” to create that end-to-end marketplace.

Andrew Rush, president of Made In Space, the company that has developed 3-D printers for the ISS and other in-space manufacturing technologies, sees the Cislunar 1000 vision as a way to build up demand for its services. “We want to buy a rocket, we want to be an anchor tenant of a commercial habitat, and that’s the next step,” he said. “We are in a unique point in history” in that such a development path is feasible, he said.

How Cislunar 1000 fits into NASA’s plans, through, wasn’t clear from the panel discussion. It’s possible that companies could make use of the Deep Space Gateway to support their plans, but clearly they are not relying on it.

But then, maybe NASA isn’t going back to the Moon after all. As this article was going to press April 24, President Trump spoke to astronauts on the International Space Station, where he appeared to provide a newfound urgency for human missions to Mars. Told by astronaut Peggy Whitson that NASA’s plans for those missions, also mentioned in the NASA authorization act signed into law by Trump last month, called for human missions in the 2030s, he was not satisfied.

“Well, we want to try to do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?” he said. It’s not clear how serious he was, but one thing was clear: there was no mention of humans going back to the Moon during his conversation.


Suddenly, Alpha Centauri is a Popular Destination

Groups small and large set their sights on our neighboring star system.

The launch of Breakthrough Starshot a year ago, backed by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, has re-opened the idea of exploring nearby stars—first by telescope, and eventually by spacecraft. While the group is holding a second “Breakthrough Discuss” conference this week to highlight its progress so far, other groups, large and small, are getting in on the action.

Starshot proposes sending a nano-spacecraft to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, at 20 percent of the speed of light within 20 years. Last summer scientists reported finding a rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, one of the stars in the system. Meanwhile, scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany were so inspired by the Starshot idea that they came up with a way to slow down the spacecraft once it reaches its destination, using stellar pressure. Such braking would be critical if the spacecraft is to take pictures or collect science data.

Now a new NASA-funded project has jumped on the bandwagon. Called “A Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions,” the study was selected as part of the agency’s advanced concepts program. The idea is to use a laser to beam power across the solar system, which is similar to the Breakthrough Starshot concept. The architecture also includes a highly (60 to 70 percent) efficient solar photovoltaic array, and a lithium-based ion propulsion system.

“Doing a real interstellar mission is extraordinarily difficult,” says principal investigator John Brophy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It doesn’t take you very long to see that one of the keys to doing this [interstellar travel] is that you really have to get the mass of the power system off the vehicle. You try to carry that with you, it’s too massive and takes you too long.”

Brophy acknowledges that this mission is decades away from happening; his $125,000 NASA grant will go to firm up the calculations for his initial projections. And even though his architecture includes an exceedingly fast spacecraft, it’s not fast enough for interstellar flight. A tiny probe could theoretically make it as far as Pluto in just a year, but to get to Alpha Centauri, the journey would take roughly 6,800 years.

While we’re waiting for interstellar missions to take shape, Brophy says the technology could be applied to exploring the outer solar system. He says a spacecraft’s photovoltaic array could be “tuned” so that it converts the incoming laser energy to a voltage that could be used directly by the spacecraft’s ion drive.

Not every interstellar wannabe is funded by a billionaire or government agency. A project to find potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system plans a new try at Kickstarter crowdfunding, after an initial round raised just a third of the requested $1 million last year. The money would be used for preliminary design of a 50-centimeter Earth-orbiting telescope, dubbed Project Blue, and planned for launch in 2020 on a two-year mission. The primary goal is to gaze at the triple-star Alpha Centauri system, which is roughly four light-years from Earth. Project Blue is also considering sponsorships and other ways to raise funds for the project, which is expected to cost between $25 million and $50 million.

Leader John Morse says that even though $1 million is only a fraction of what his BoldlyGo Institute needs to make Project Blue viable, crowdfunding would generate excitement and investment in the project from the outset. “Crowdfunding is only one arrow in the quiver, but a crucial one as we seek to provide novel opportunities for the public to be engaged,” he says. A former NASA director of astrophysics, Morse says the institute’s goal is to raise money to augment NASA’s work in space science and flight research.

In video call to space station, President Donald Trump calls for speeding up trips to Mars

Humans on Mars by 2024? President Donald Trump set that time frame today, almost certainly in jest, during a congratulatory video call to the International Space Station and its record-setting commander, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.

The purpose of the orbital linkup from the Oval Office was to recognize Whitson’s new status as the U.S. record-holder for most cumulative time in space – “534 days and counting,” Trump noted.

But the topic soon turned to Mars, and how soon humans would be journeying to the Red Planet. When Trump asked Whitson what the time frame was, Whitson noted that the bill he signed into law last month called for the journeys to begin in the 2030s.

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term, or at worst during my second term,” Trump replied. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?”

“We’ll do our best,” Whitson said, amid smiles and laughter.

NASA’s current schedule calls for the first test flight of the heavy-lift rocket it has designated for Mars journeys, the Space Launch System, to lift off in 2018 – but that schedule is virtually certain to slip to 2019 or 2020. It’ll take several more flights to lay the groundwork for deep-space missions.

That means putting NASA astronauts on Mars by 2024 would be out of the question, unless Trump is really serious about a massive and expensive speed-up.

Whether or not it’s 2024, and whether it’s Mars or the moon, Trump has made clear how much he wants to see a dramatic space mission during his administration. He returned to the subject of sending Americans to Mars later in the talk.

“I think we’ll do it a lot sooner than we’re even thinking,” the president said.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has also set a mid-2020s time frame for crewed trips to Mars, and he’s been more explicit about his willingness to fund the plan. SpaceX didn’t come up by name during today’s Oval Office chat, but after a bit of prompting from Trump, commercial space ventures received an orbital shout-out from Whitson’s crewmate on the station, Jack Fischer.

“Once you get them going, you better stand out of their way,” Fischer said.

Trump was joined in the Oval Office by NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who came back to Earth last September after conducting the first DNA sequencing experiment in orbit; and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.

Among other highlights from the video:
  • Whitson said it’s “a huge honor to break a record like this,” and become the American with the most total time racked up in orbit. She also holds the record for most spacewalks done by a woman (eight) and for the oldest woman flying in space (57 years old). Whitson is due to stay in orbit until September.
  • When Trump asked Whitson to talk about life in space, she mentioned that the station had equipment to convert the astronaut’s urine into drinkable water. “It’s really not as bad as it sounds,” Whitson said. “Well, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that,” Trump replied. “Better you than me.”
  • Fischer put in a strong pitch for international cooperation in space, and repeatedly said how “awesome” it was to be living on the International Space Station. “We work really hard up here, but it’s not really work. It’s just fun,” said Fischer, who began his first space mission last week. “It’s like playing ‘fort,’ almost, only you’re changing the world while you do it.”
  • Trump observed that “there’s tremendous military application in space … We’re rebuilding our military like never before. We’re ordering equipment and we’re going to have the strongest military that we’ve ever had.” The Air Force has conducted missions aimed at defending America’s space assets, including orbital test flights of the X-37B space plane. A secret X-37B mission is still in progress, nearly two years after launch.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

NASA Speed-of-Light WARP DRIVE will Change EVERYTHING…including SPACE and TIME

In a seismically isolated room within the Johnson Space Center, NASA scientists are performing an extraordinarily ambitious experiment—aiming to use a strong electric field to bend the fabric of space and time. The goal? Faster-than-light interstellar travel. The story may seem like science fiction and it is…or at least, it used to be.

In the early 1990s, Miguel Alcubierre, a theoretical physics Ph.D. student, sat down to watch an episode of Star Trek. In the show, a technology called “warp drive” gave ships the ability to travel multi-light-year distances in a single prime-time episode. Alcubierre’s curiosity was peaked—how would a warp drive work in the real world?

To answer this question, Alcubierre had to sidestep the “cosmic speed limit.” That’s a fear that Einstein’s theory of special relativity calls impossible. But the student spotted a loophole. Everything in the universe may be limited by the speed of light, but the fabric of space and time itself can expand contract at any speed. Alcubierre discovered that if space-time could be made to contract in front of a ship, and expand behind it, the ship would be propelled forward at an immense speed.

“While it sounds very sci-fi, the warp drive is theoretically possible, by making space and time bend in a particular way,” Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney, says. “With this bending, a small bubble of unbent space-time can be propelled across the Universe at any speed you want.”

If you can get your spacecraft in that bubble, you’re off.

In 1994, Alcubierre published a paper describing solutions to Einstein’s equations that would allow for faster-than-light travel. His idea doesn’t violate special relativity because it is not the ship itself that is “moving,” but the pocket of space-time it’s within. At the time he introduced the idea, it was just a mathematical possibility. He argued the amount of energy it would take to beat light-speed was the equivalent to the energy produced by the Sun over 10 billion years. In the past two decades, the idea has evolved, and those numbers have been scaled down.

Now, the process is believed to require the energy equivalent to what the Sun gives out in less than one millionth of a second. In 2011, NASA accounted they were launching preliminary experiments to test its feasibility in the lab.

“We know nature can bend space-time,” Lewis says. The NASA experiment generates an extremely powerful electric field and then fires a laser through it. Any space-time compression will shorten the distance traveled by the laser beam. “If it works, [it will be] the first baby steps in the direction of a warp drive.”

Preliminary results, presented in 2013, were inconclusive. Now, the team is working to increase the sensitivity of the instrument that measures the distance traveled by the laser beam to detect contractions of 5 nanometers. But even if the team succeeds, it would only reveal that it is possible to contract space-time in front of the nano craft. The more difficult feat is expanding space-time behind the craft, which would require dark energy to achieve. Of course, we don’t even know for sure if dark energy even exists.

“Some think that malleable negative energy might be impossible, putting the proverbial spanner in the warp-drive works. But theoretical physics has not ruled this out,” Lewis says.

Read More:

From Here To Eternity: NASA Believes Humanity Will Travel Interstellar

In order to boldly go where no man has gone before we first need to sort out a few things — achieving near-relativistic speeds is certainly one of it. Space travel would allow humanity to explore all the new worlds, visit other galaxies and more so, seek out new life.

Right now NASA scientists are weighing in on that subject again, claiming that the cutting-edge technologies needed to making this pipe dream a reality are getting closer by the day.

Imagine getting to Mars in just 3 days… or putting points beyond our solar system within our reach. New propulsion technologies could one day take us to these cosmic destinations making space travel truly interstellar! - Philip Lubin

Using electromagnetic acceleration to achieve relativistic speeds with microscopic particles in laboratory settings is something scientists do on a regular basis. Anytime you try to achieve those speeds on a macroscopic level, it’s becoming significantly more difficult with the hindrance of chemical binding energies...

Getting closer to that goal is a possibility with the all new Space Launch System (SLS), touted as the most powerful rocket every created as it puts out between 50 and 100 gigawatts of power when it takes off. If you don’t know how much that is — according to NASA and Philip Lubin that’s approximately the same as the energy needed to reach the relativistic speeds.

Keep in mind, reaching relativistic speeds would allow us to propel a hundred kilogram robotic spacecraft to Mars in just a few days. Translating to the size of a shuttle holding human occupants, it would only take “about a month” to reach the Red Planet. Anything in space within approximately 25 light years would be readily available for exploration. Yes, that would include several exoplanets that scientists believe may be habitable. The Alpha Centauri star system, for example, is ‘only’ 4 light years away from Earth.

A technology with a similar power output to the SLS will come into play and NASA believes this to be photonic propulsion. Photonic propulsion involves using emitted light particles for thrust, rather than heat or propellant and has long been hailed as the next-gen propulsion system among scientists.

Think of Photonic propulsion as the light that propels us to the highest speed, which ironically is the speed of light — the “ultimate rocket fuel” — what a fitting solution!

There are recent advances which take this from science fiction to science reality. There is no known reason why we cannot do this.

According to Lubin, NASA has a roadmap, so we are not only getting pretty close to realizing this theorized, futuristic type of rocket, but are finally inching closer to something we once thought is an eternity away…


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Newly found planet could be just right for life

WASHINGTON — Astronomers have found yet another planet that seems to have just the right Goldilocks combination for life: Not so hot and not so cold. It’s not so far away, either.

This new, big, dense planet is rocky, like Earth, and has the right temperatures for water, putting it in the habitable zone for life, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It’s the fifth such life-possible planet outside our solar system revealed in less than a year, but still relatively nearby Earth. Rocky planets within that habitable zone of a star are considered the best place to find evidence of some form of life.

“It is astonishing to live in a time when discovery of potentially habitable worlds is not only common place but proliferating,” said MIT astronomer Sara Seager, who wasn’t part of the study.

The first planet outside our solar system was discovered in 1995, but thanks to new techniques and especially NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler telescope, the number of them has exploded in recent years. Astronomers have now identified 52 potentially habitable planets and more than 3,600 planets outside our solar system.

The latest discovery, called LHS 1140b, regularly passes in front of its star, allowing astronomers to measure its size and mass. That makes astronomers more confident that this one is rocky, compared to other recent discoveries.

In the next several years, new telescopes should be able to use the planet’s path to spy its atmosphere in what could be the best-aimed search for signs of life, said Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau, a co-author of the study. If scientists see both oxygen and some carbon in an atmosphere, that’s a promising sign that something could be living.

Outside astronomers have already put this new planet near the top of their must-see lists for new ground and space-based telescopes.

“This is the first one where we actually know it’s rocky,” Charbonneau said. “We found a planet that we can actually study that might be actually Earth-like.”

Make that super-sized, because it belongs to a class of planets called super-Earths that are more massive than Earth but not quite the size of giants Neptune or Jupiter.

Compared to Earth, the new planet is big, pushing near the size limit for rocky planets. It’s 40 percent wider than Earth but it has 6.6 times Earth’s mass, giving it a gravitational pull three times stronger, Charbonneau said. A person weighing 167 pounds would feel like 500 pounds on this planet.

While many super-Earths are too big to have the right environment for life, 1140b is just small enough to make it a good candidate. Thirty-two of the potentially habitable planets found so far are considered super-Earth sized.

The new planet was found using eight small telescopes in Chile and help from an amateur planet-hunter, Charbonneau said.

In the constellation Cetus, it is 39 light years or 230 trillion miles away. So are a group of seven mostly Earth-sized planets in or near the habitable zone found circling a star called Trappist-1 earlier this year, but it in a different direction. And in August, astronomers found that the nearest planet to Earth outside our solar system, only 25 trillion miles away, also could have the right temperature for life, but astronomers can’t get a peek at its atmosphere.

“If you picture the Milky Way as the size of the United States, then these systems are all within the size of Central Park,” Charbonneau said. “These are your neighbors.”

The latest discoveries have their founders at odds over which of the planets are the most promising. Charbonneau said recent studies show that the Trappist planets may not be rocky like Earth, while Trappist discoverer Michael Gillon said the newest planet has such intense gravity that its atmosphere may be smooshed down so telescopes can’t get a good look at it.

Seven outside astronomers said the Milky Way is big enough for all the discoveries to be exciting, requiring more exploring.

Yale astronomer Greg Laughlin, who wasn’t part of any of the teams, praised all the new findings but said the Trappist planets seem too light and the new one too dense for his taste: “I wouldn’t book a trip to any of these planets.”


Friday, April 14, 2017

Real Star Wars: Earth-Like Exoplanet Orbitting Two Stars Could Support Life

A new study claims to have found an exoplanet which is habitable just like the earth. The exoplanet is said to be illuminated by a pair of stars alike the sun. It has been found based on a model designed on the basis of a binary solar system called the Kepler 35.

According to United Press International, during the research, scientists introduced a small earth-sized exoplanet in place of Kepler 35b, the sole planet in the Kepler 35 solar system. The model helped the scientists in understanding how a rocky planet's atmosphere is affected while orbiting a pair of stars like the Kepler A and B.

Researchers came to determine that the earth-sized exoplanet in the Kepler 35 binary solar system will comprise of only a small amount of water vapor. This will result in the planet's temperature to swing wildly each year, changes as much as up to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit on an average.

According to Mail Online, the study showed that the earth-sized exoplanet, if planted in the right place in a habitable zone, can capture its water content for a long time. This can, as per the researchers, help the planet in supporting life. This also indicates that almost all the two star planetary systems can be deemed suitable to host habitable planets, say the experts.

Going by the researchers, in a dual star solar system, an exoplanet that is closer to the stars but is still in the habitable zone will experience a high amount of water vapor in its atmosphere. On the other hand, the planet that is too close to the inner edge of the habitable zone will be experiencing a complete greenhouse gas effect, leading it to become completely inhospitable.

The unique model also shows that a rocky world inside the inner edge of Kepler 35 will feature less dramatic temperature shifts. This exoplanet will also have less cloud and fairly clear skies making the atmosphere 'livable'. The results of the study have been published in the journal "Nature Communications".