(Image Credit: NASA)
The culmination of excitement and tech know-how has finally appeared to produce the perfect storm to get us on our way to Mars in the next decade or so. This is great news, and brings with it so many exciting challenges. You thought getting Tang from the original NASA space program was a boon? Just imagine the technologies and techniques we will have to invent and refine in order for the first hearty souls to live off-world.
As such, research is being done on how we can produce food to keep those early settlers alive and fed. Hydroponics is of course a strong area of study, as well as how to coax food from the martian surface. Turns out that poisonous regolith is not the most advantageous or friendly material in which to try to grow potatoes. However, as humans often do, we are finding ways to make it work, or at least some possibilities. At the Florida Institute of Technology as well as Villanova (both excellent links – follow those), students are running experiments with core crops including lettuce, peas, peppers and hops (Mars Bars!) in a variety of soil types simulating martian conditions.
While it is widely accepted that some sort of treatment will need to be done to the martian soil before it is able to produce crops, or frankly not kill us outright, the methods to speed up that remediation and align the hostile environment with human-supporting conditions as quickly as possible seem to get a little better every day.
The SpaceX launch schedule has been a real thing of mystery this year, setting re-usability and turn-around records earlier this summer, and having a bit of a dry spell lately. Well never fear, because you can be sure that Shotwell and the whole crew at everyone’s favorite commercial launch megagiant is busy planning and prepping for the rest of the domination of that 60 year old industry, in short order!
Coming up next we have the launch of the relatively light weight SAOCOM-1A (about 1600 kg) from the West coast at Vandenberg. The device name is an acronym of Satélite Argentino de Observación Con Microondas, and is managed by the Argentine Space Agency CONAE. The device has a L-band (about 1.275 GHz) full polarimetric Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and it’s main mission, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, is to assist with emergency management of natural disasters.
There’s usually something cool or special about a SpaceX launch, and this time around it is the planned RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing of the booster at the newly completed California Landing Zone, a pad only 1400 feet from the SLC-4 launch area. This will be a reused Block 5 booster, which we hope goes 2-for-2 with hardly a second thought. Onward to double digits!
So get excited for an on-shore landing – next time the drone ship Just Read the Instructions may get some more use!
It’s such a wonderful thing when electronics intended to last for months end up lasting years. One of my personal favorite examples of this is arcade equipment from the 1980s, which was cycled into and out of arcades extremely rapidly owing to their massive popularity at the time. These machines were not really “built to last”, but since it was the 1980s, they were built. As a result, we can still experience the joy of an original arcade or pinball machine, which requires surprisingly little TLC to get it back to prime.
Fast forward to 2003, when the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity was launched, and subsequently landed on Mars in 2004. This was a mission intended to last for 90 days, and by all accounts the rover was designed for that time scale as well. However, 14.5 years into the mission it has surpassed all expectations and certainly paid for itself many times over with the science it has enabled. Sadly, the massive Martian dust storm of the last month may have finally brought that mission to an end, by covering the solar panels on the rover and effectively putting it to sleep. NASA and outposts around the world are anxiously listening for any slight signal from the rover, but as days drag on this seems less and less likely.
Steven Squyres (Ph.D Cornell 1981) who has been the principal investigator of the Mars missions for all this time, explains the situation in clear terms in a new article fittingly published in Cornell’s campus paper The Daily Sun. What is most likely to kill the rover will be the bitter cold it will be subjected to without power to stay warm. The -80 degree Celsius nights on Mars will subject the stalwart rover to component expansion and contraction – stresses which will be increasingly difficult to endure.
Overall, everyone is more than satisfied with the mission outcome, it’s just that after a piece of science equipment is nearly old enough to get a drivers license, you get a little attached.
So – we wish the rover the best. And we also look forward to a time when it has a place of honor in the first Natural Science museum to be built on the red planet.
The good folks at NASA have conducted the first flight test of a new foldable heat shield on September 12th, with great success. This new concept is touted as a transformative technology that will enable larger and lighter ships to perform more advanced missions, not the least of which will be both cargo and crew missions to Mars with an enhanced ability to survive the rigors of reentry using a vastly slimmed down system. Any time you can save weight on a spacecraft, that savings can be redistributed to more critical areas, namely additional cargo and scientific apparatus (and pizza ovens).
Called the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT), a backronym worthy of Gary Busey, it consists of a 3D-woven carbon fibers arranged in a thick layer, formed on top of a structure which can flex and deploy the shield. This is in contrast to the traditional rigid, heavy, difficult to construct plastic shielding which has been used for decades. It’s this sort of novel and creative thinking which will allow us to accomplish more important and ambitious flight objectives, and is another great sign that key decision makers are aligned correctly to move us forward.
You can check out a video of the heat shield here!
The good folks at NASA, ever managing to be on the leading edge, have just launched a competition encouraging teams to develop a system to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. Why is this important? Well, sugar-based biomaterials are plentiful on this planet thanks to our helpful plant life. That will not be the case as we set out among the stars! Developing bioengineering methods to create base materials that will be in short supply (such as easy to metabolize sugars like glucose) from materials that are in great abundance (carbon dioxide) will be a crucial step towards facilitating our successful advancement.
This competition is broken into two phases:
Phase 1: Teams submit a design and description of a method to perform the stipulated conversion. Up to 5 teams will be awared $50,000 each, as will be announced in April 2019.
Phase 2: Actually building a working system to perform the conversion. The successful team will walk away with $750,000.
This new contest is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which was initiated in 2005, intended to directly engage the public in advanced technology development. Basically, NASA is being very observant and starting to crowd-source ideas and research, which makes a great deal of sense in our current world.
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)
A planet-wide dust storm, which was first seen on May 30, 2018, is finally winding down on the windy red planet. NASA’s rover Opportunity, which is solar powered, has suffered a shutdown as a result of this storm – going into what amounts to hibernation to ride out the storm. However, that dormant period has been longer and more intense than originally designed to handle, so everyone is on edge waiting to see if we can get the rover back on line.
Signals are being sent to the 15 year old rover, which is tucked away in Perseverance Valley, in the hope that once the batteries are recharged even a little, the unit will initiate recovery procedures.
We’ll keep you posted on the status of this fan-favorite rover; and hopefully some readers of this site will one day visit it in a science museum with 38% the surface gravity of Earth.
Initially scheduled for a late-August launch, the Telstar 18 mission has been pushed back to No Earlier Than (NET) September 9th. This is a follow-up mission to the July 22nd launch of the higher-numbered Telstar 19, allowing Telesat to further expand their coverage of the Asia Pacific region.
Gunter tells us that the Telstar 18V is a communications satellite with two high throughput payloads, one in Ku-band and the other in C-band. It will be based on the SSL-1300 bus with an electrical output of approximately 14 kW. Perhaps my favorite spec is that it will have 4 × SPT-100 plasma thrusters.
As for launch details, it is anticipated that the launch will utilize the new Block 5 B1049 first stage booster, which will take off from pad LC-40 at Cape Canaveral and then land on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You” at a position approximately 650 km to the East.
As we get closer to this new launch time, we will continue to bring you updates and most importantly a link and a reminder of how to watch live!
One of the great things about having a genius-level CEO who is hell-bent on pushing mankind into the world they expected to already exist and is a massive sci-fi fan, is that the design aesthetic for everything his companies do is very consciously ‘futuristic’. And why not? It is fantastic to boldly own the fact that we really should look like the Jestons by now, instead of something from the set of 1984’s Repo Man.
A perfect example of this is the new Crew Access Arm (CAA) that SpaceX has installed on Pad 39a at Cape Canaveral. Seeing crew-based hardware going back up on this historic pad should make anyone familiar with recent history very excited, as it was from this very location that all Apollo missions to the moon, powered by the Saturn V, were launched along with many of the more recent Shuttle missions. Restoring that capability to American soil, through American inginuity is something we should all be proud of, and is something to be recognized and celebrated.
From a broader perspective – I believe firmly that the exploration and development of space will be a unifying force for a fractured world. Certainly there will be some unexpected struggles, as there always are, but I think that humans need a sense of adventure and exploration. It’s part of our makeup. We are lacking that now, and spinning our wheels with reality shows and iPhone apps, and basically circling the drain without a shared purpose. Space will be that purpose, and I feel will allow us to lift up from the state in which we find ourselves and achieve the next, better stage of our enlightened development, together as one people.
Teslarati – SpaceX’s futuristic Crew Dragon astronaut walkway is ready for US human spaceflight revival
Last week, SpaceX hosted a closed-door. invitation only Mars workshop, intended to bring together an interdisciplinary team of industry leading experts to discuss the plan for the red planet. Details on this meeting are, as you would imagine, still pretty minimal, but it is encouraging that this sort of thing is starting to ramp up, and the right questions are being asked of the right people.
A recent criticism that has been lodged against SpaceX is that they are very focused and successful with solving the engineering problems required to improve rocket technology and build the pathway to Mars. However, the amount of time spent considering the human factor, and how difficult it will be to keep astronauts alive both on the journey as well as once they have arrived is far less. Challenges ranging from radiation exposure (in space and on the surface) to adequate supplies to the ‘dust problem’ to basic human interactions all need to be considered and seriously addressed. Since Musk’s companies all show a propensity for thinking of the edge cases and surprising us when we think they are missing an angle, I maintain great confidence that what needs to be considered, is well under way.