Technological Breakthroughs needed to visit other Solar Systems

The more we look into the Universe the more obvious it becomes that our Solar System and potentially our own Earth is not as unique as we once thought.  Just this week NASA released news about Kepler-452b which is very similar to Earth both in size, its parent Star and its distance from the star.

Today we are going to take a look at three of the technology breakthroughs we would need to make to be able to visit other Solar Systems.

Communications

At present all communications are limited to the speed of light 186,000 miles per second (mps) therefore the further we move away from Earth the longer it takes to communicate information back.  Take for example the recent visit by NASA New Horizons which just pasted the planet Pluto, a signal from the spacecraft when at Pluto took 4.5 hours.  The nearest star to ours is Proxima Centauri which is 4.2 light years away (more than 24 billion miles).

There are significant challenges when dealing with communicating at the speed of light over vast distances, for the purposes of this article we are going to use laser-based communications not radio-based.

1) Location of receiver – If you send a signal towards Earth today which wasn’t expected to arrive for 4.2 years we would never receive it because Earth would not be in the same location by the time the signal arrives.  Therefore we would have to calculate where Earth should be when the signal is expected to arrive.

We would also need to calculate how much data could be returned before the signal would be lost again.

2) Data Corruption – The chances of data corruption over the vast distances involved are significant, therefore we would have to build a system that would provide a way of compensating for this corruption, this would result in less actual data being returned as each packet of data would have redundant information from other packets.

3) The long wait – With New Horizons we only had to wait a relatively short amount of time for signals, when we have to wait 4.2 years for a signal to arrive things will be much more intense.

In order for us to overcome these challenges we are going to need to find a way to break the light speed limitation on communications.

One technology that could allow this is Quantum Entanglement where two or more particles interact in ways that the quantum state of each cannot be described independently.  If a device was able to measure and control the state of each particle then it may be possible to transmit data.  This is purely theoretical at present based on a limited understand of how it works.

Transportation

At present the fastest vehicle we have travelling in space is the Voyager 2 which is travelling at 17 kilometers per second (kps) relative to the sun.  This translates to approximately 38,000 miles per hour or 0.0057% the speed of light.

The New Horizons probe that was launched in 2006 more than nine years to get to Pluto and it currently travelling a little slower than Voyager 2 at 16.26 kps.

Based on these speeds it would take a spacecraft 73,000+ years to get to our nearest neighbor Proxima Centauri.

We believe there are two technology breakthroughs needed for transportation:-

The first breakthrough would be to significantly increase the speed at which spacecraft travel within our Solar System.  The long term goal would be to increase the speed by a factor of 10,000 allowing us to travel at 57% the speed of light.   While this doesn’t sound too bad it comes with big risks, including how to avoid debris, how to navigate around the solar system at those speeds and ensuring we slow down when approaching the target.  There is a lot of research going on at present to help increase the speed of spacecraft, and these could well achieve the desired speed increase however it would take many years of continuous thrust to get there.  For more information on current research check out the following (not exhaustive list) of companies/agencies researching.

Ad Astra – VASIMR
NASA – Ion Propulsion
NASA – NEXT
UCLA Plasma & Space Propulsion

The second and biggest would be to breaking the light speed barrier, and while there is research being done into this it could be many years before we can do this, if ever.  The possibilities that would be open to us if we were able to achieve faster then light travel are almost limitless, however it is very unlikely that in our lifetimes we are going to be able to achieve this.

Power Generation

At present we have two ways to provide power to spacecraft Solar and Radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), the problem with these is they have limited applications.

Solar is very useful for applications nearer to our Sun but once we start getting into the outer solar system they are harder to justify.  RTG’s can provide power for many years however in general they provide a very small amount of power typically between 100-450 watts.

For long term missions that cannot rely on these power sources, for example a mission to Europa’s Ocean or to Triton, we need to come up with another source of power that can provide what is needed.

One concept in design by NASA is a Sterling Engine, this uses the same fuel as an RTG but because of the design it can produce more power.  However because it has moving parts there was concern that it could damage sensitive instruments.  More information on the design can be found here.

Summary

So in summary while we can explore the universe using the amazing telescopes that we currently have and that exploration will only get better with new scopes in development or being planned. Going physically beyond our own Solar System is not something that is going to happen for many years yet.  We would love to be proven wrong on this and for a breakthrough to come that would enable it however realistically we will be stuck to a low % of light speed travel probably for most of this century.

The views expressed in this article are the authors and any feedback would be welcomed, if you know of any research into these technologies we would be happy to update the article to include details on the research and links to any publications from the team.

ULA launches WGS 7 satellite

This evening United Launch Alliance launched the seventh Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) military communications satellite aboard its Delta IV rocket. The launch, which was delayed yesterday due to stormy weather, proceeded with a smooth countdown this afternoon resulting in the Delta IV lifting off at 8:07 pm EDT.

Once in orbit the 2nd stage will burn twice to deploy the satellite to its desired orbit.  Once deployed the satellite deployed its solar arrays to begin on-orbit operations.

Below are images of the launch

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TMA-17M Docks with ISS

Following the successful launch earlier the Soyuz TMA-17M carrying Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui and Kjell Lindgren arrived at the international Space Station following a four orbit journey.

After the launch it became clear that as with TMA-14M one of the solar panels had not deployed correctly, this didn’t impact the docking and as before the panel deployed either during or after docking.

Once the spacecraft completed the docking leak tests were performed to ensure a good connection between both vehicles before the hatches were opened allowing the three crew members to join Gennady Padalka, Mikhail Korniyenko and Scott Kelly.

Videos of the docking and hatch opening

Soyuz TMA-17M launches to ISS

Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko, Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui and NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren launched this evening from Baikonur Cosmodrome towards the International Space Station.

Once in orbit the spacecraft deployed its solar panels and KURS docking antenna’s before beginning the six hours, four orbit chase of the ISS.

We will follow up with an article after the docking and hatch opening.

Image below of the launch

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SpaceX releases preliminary data on 6/28 Falcon 9 failure

More than three weeks ago during the launch of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station the Falcon 9 second stage suffered an anomaly that resulted in the lost of the spacecraft and its payloads.

Today Elon Musk announced that the preliminary investigation into the accident indicates that a strut inside the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank on the 2nd stage failed causing the liquid helium bottle to dislodge and hit the top of the LOX tank causing the explosion.  Elon stressed multiple times during the call that this is a preliminary result so far.

 

SpaceX have tested 1000s of the struts since the accident and have found a number of failures below rated value, including one that failed below 2,000 lbs.

During the call Elon admitted that SpaceX did not perform Quality Control on the strut that failed and instead relied in the part meeting the specification as provided by the supplier.  They will be revising their processes to ensure all parts of the rocket are fully QCed for future flights.  While this will increase SpaceX costs during construction of the rocket they didn’t expect it to have much if any of an impact on the cost of the rocket.

Elon also announced that Dragon V1 didn’t have the ability to deploy the chutes in case of an emergency during ascent, the next flight will have the ability should it be needed which would have most likely have resulted in pressurized cargo being saved. They expect to delay flights until September but at present don’t know who will be the first flight manifest will most likely change.  Again because this is preliminary so may change should another cause become obvious.

Elon also announced that due to the investigation the flight of Falcon Heavy will most likely be delayed until April 2016.  

Elon also admitted that most of the people who now work for SpaceX have never seen a failure due to all the successful launches in the last seven years.  This had caused most of them to become complacent about the difficulty of launching rockets.  They have now learned the hard way just what is involved. 

Is No News Good News for the #SpaceX accident

On the 5th July Elon Tweeted the following

However it is now 11 days later and we still haven’t heard any news on what caused the 28th June explosion that doomed the CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station.

Does the lack of news mean that they found something that they cannot explain or worse still found something that involved another party and need to handle the issue careful?

At this time it is difficult to say what is happening, all we know or certain is that NASA and the FAA are closely monitoring the investigation and I am sure we will hear eventually what they found and what needs to be done to address it.

In the meantime we will continue to speculate on what it could have been as is human nature and then see how close or far from the truth we were.

Ariane 5 launches two satellites

va224In the second launch of the day an Arianespace Ariane 5 ECA rocket lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana carrying the Star One C4 and MSG-4 satellites.

The flight was delayed from the original launch date due to oil contamination which has since been resolved, the countdown today ran smoothly allowed the rocket to lift off as expected at 5:42 pm EDT.

The two payloads were successfully delivered to there desired orbits and will now begin in-orbit operations.

Latest GPS Satellite launched by ULA

2015-07-15-113209-350x208This morning a United Launch Alliance Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the latest GPS 2F satellite to orbit.

The rocket used the 401 configuration, which is the simplest version of the Atlas V family.  Due to the configureability of the Atlas V family of rockets these numbers represent a four meter payload fairing (4), no solid rocket boosters (0) and a single RD-180 engine (1).

This was the 10th flight of the Block 2F GPS satellite.

The Atlas V in the 401 vehicle configuration lifted off as expected at 11:36 am EDT, once in orbit the upper stage will travel for approximately three hours before the satellite is deployed to its planned orbit.  We will update the article once confirmation of successful deployment is received.

UPDATE confirmation has been received of successful completion of the mission

Images of the launch from LiveStream Webcast

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New Horizons Phones Home

Following this mornings flyby of Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft has phoned home. And tomorrow morning it will starting returning the high priority data from its numerous observations.

Atlas_V_551_roars_into_blue_skyThe spacecraft which was launched in Jan, 2006 has traveled more than 3.2 billion miles to reach the Pluto system, during the 9.5 years of travel most of it was spent alone in deep space in hibernation, occasionally the mission team would wake it up to check out the systems.

At the end of last year the spacecraft woke up to begin checkouts in preparation for the flyby operations which begun in Jan this year. As the spacecraft approached the Pluto system the LORRI instrument took images to allow the navigation team to check its approach and make any corrections needed so that they could arrive in the target window just 90 x 60 miles in size. To put that in perspective, that is like hitting a golf ball on the east coast of the USA with the intention of getting a hole in one on the west coast.

During the flyby the spacecraft operated in autonomous mode where it focused solely on the completion of the observations that had been pre-programmed once those were complete it turned its main antenna back to Earth and started to transmit its data.

It may be many years before all the data that is returned by New Horizons is fully analyzed and the text books written on the planet.

Was the SpaceX accident due to Sabotage?

As we continue to wait for information from SpaceX on the cause of the Jun 28th accident that resulted in the loss of the CRS-7 mission a number of people have asked this question.

Today we want to look at this scenario and see just how unlikely it is.

It is no secret that SpaceX have made waves in the space launch industry with there pricing and until this flight the success of the Falcon 9 rocket. To start our investigation we start with SpaceX themselves.

SpaceX
If someone internally was able to sabotage the vehicle this would present some major issues for SpaceX including.

1) During the US Air Force certification Security would have been discussed due to the nature of some of the payloads. If SpaceX were not able to stop an employee from sabotaging the rocket that would impact any chances of getting USAF launches in the future.

2) Security is also important to Commercial customers as they don’t want anyone just walking into the assembly building and being able to mess with their payload.

3) If SpaceX’s processes are so lack that someone was left alone long enough with the rocket to be able to sabotage it they again would have some difficult questions to answer from customers.

Boeing
The next suspect that has been mentioned several times is Boeing, while they are competitors both in space launch with United Launch Alliance and Commercial Crew there is no real benefits to Boeing in destroying SpaceX at this point.

1) Boeing need the International Docking Adapter that was destroyed in the accident in order to dock their CST-100 spacecraft to the station. At present Dragon is the only vehicle capable of transporting it.

2) If sabotage was proven against Boeing it would severely damage their reputation within the market place both with NASA and Commercially and while they have a proven success record they would be remember more for this than the successes.

Other Commercial Cargo/Crew competitors
There is no doubt that this accident came at a very inconvenient time for SpaceX with the award of the CRS-2 contracts coming in September. And this could benefit some of the other players however just as with Boeing any provable sabotage would have a negative impact on their chances.

Russia
Russia have had their own launch issues recently with the Proton launch issues, the Progress failure earlier this year. If they were not having all of these reliability issues they would certainly benefit from SpaceX failing or becoming more expensive as a result of the accident. However it seems very unlikely that Russia would waste the resources needed to convince someone at SpaceX to sabotage the rocket or be able to sneak someone into place to be able to do so.

Arianespace/European Space Agency
It is no secret that some European leaders do not like SpaceX due to the disruption they have caused. However as with the other competitors it is very unlikely that they would bother waste resources to sabotage SpaceX, again any provable sabotage would damage there reputation.

China
We can’t dismiss China at this point, they have shown they are capable of achieving manned spaceflight joining only a small group of nations. And while they would probably not care what others think if provable sabotage was proven it would still cause political issues longer term and there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to China.

Summary
So in summary the chances of sabotage are very small as no-one really would benefit from it and it would force SpaceX to face some serious questions about their processes/security.