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.

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.

And now we wait #PlutoFlyby

Latest image of Pluto released during the Flyby
Latest image of Pluto released during the Flyby

New Horizons has completed its closest approach to Pluto with a historic flyby at 7:50am EDT today, however we will not hear back from the spacecraft for another 12 hours as it will now turn around and continue observations as it moves away from the system, this time with our Sun in the background.

The spacecraft has been operating autonomously and until we hear back later today we will not really know how successful it was, did it complete all the planned observations? Did it encounter something during flyby that we had not previously seen?

Now all we can do is wait until this evening to see just how successful the spacecraft was and begin to receive the reams of data that was collected.  Due to the distance from Earth it will take almost 16 months for everything to be returned.  Now the patience of the team will be tested more than during the 9.5 years it took to get to Pluto as they know the data is on the spacecraft and they can’t do anything to speed up the return of it.

Check back this evening for updates on the success of the mission.

T-1 days until #PlutoFlyby

By this time tomorrow NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be zooming past the Dwarf Plant Pluto capturing details of the planet from just 12,500 km (7,800 mi) away closer than any spacecraft has ever been.

New Horizons team members react to latest images from spacecraft
New Horizons team members react to latest images from spacecraft

The spacecraft is now deep in the encounter mode of operation, this means that if anything goes wrong it will automatically repair itself and continue operating.  Previously the vehicle, as it did last week, would have failed over to the backup computer, re-orient itself towards Earth and then wait for commands to be sent back.  However due to the limited time of the flyby valuable data would be lost if the computer couldn’t automatically recover.

Due to the distance from Earth it will take more than a year to send all the data that is capture back to Earth.  While the spacecraft will be more then 600m miles away from Pluto by the time all the data is returned to Earth new revelations about the Pluto system will still be discovered during that time.

Below are some of the latest images returned by the spacecraft

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T-7 days and counting to New Horizons Pluto Flyby

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is just 7 days away from its closest approach to Pluto, and this week we are going to look at the amazing images that have already been returned.  As the spacecraft gets closer and closer we are going to learn much more about the Planet and its moons.

Before we take a look at the images however a quick update on the health of the vehicle.  As most of you probably now 4th July a Safe-Mode event occurred which resulted in a period of lost communications.  The vehicle quickly recovered from this by switching to the backup computer and re-establishing communications.  The Mission control team reported on Sunday that the fault was caused by a timing issue in the command sequencing planned for the final flyby and because this is the only time this sequence will be used they have resumed normal science operations already.

As the spacecraft has been closing in on the Pluto/Charon system the images it has returned have been getting better and better.  Initially the images were captured by the LORRI instrument as that was the only one capable of capturing images at distance.  However the Ralph and Alice instruments are now online and have enhanced our view.  Over the next week we can expected to see even more detailed images appear, below are a sampling of the images publicly available.

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More images are available on the New Horizons Web Site

 

New Horizons Suffers Safe-Mode event

Just 10 days before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto it suffered a Safe-Mode event on Saturday causing a lost of communications when the spacecraft handled the event and switched to its backup computer system.

Thankfully the backup system took over and re-established communications and begun sending data back to Mission Control to allow them to determine what caused the Safe-Mode and come up with a plan to resolve it

A New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB) was convened at 4 p.m. EDT on the 4th to gather information on the problem and initiate a recovery plan. The team is now working to return New Horizons to its original flight plan. Due to the 9-hour, round trip communication delay that results from operating a spacecraft almost 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, full recovery is expected to take from one to several days; New Horizons will be temporarily unable to collect science data during that time.

Status updates will be issued as new information is available.

NASA announces Europa Mission Instrument Selection

This afternoon NASA announced the Instruments that will be flown to Europa in 2020s.

The NASA selectees are:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) — principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) — principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

Separate from the selectees listed above, the SPace Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface (SPECIES) instrument has been chosen for further technology development. Led by principal investigator Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, this combined neutral mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph will be developed for other mission opportunities.

Further information on Europa can be found here.

Below are some images from the press conference

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LightSail in orbit

LS-spacecraftThe first privately built Solar Sail spacecraft LightSail is now in orbit.  Built by the Planetary Society the spacecraft was launched as a secondary payload on the Atlas V that launched earlier today.

The successful deployment of the CubeSat was confirmed by the Societies Jason Davies via Twitter.

Once the antenna’s have deployed they expect contact later today, sometime over the next 2-4 weeks the spacecraft will deploy it’s Mylar Solar Sail which measures 32m², once deployed the light from the Sun will propel it. UPDATE – Confirmation that the antenna’s have deployed

They are already working on the second test spacecraft will is scheduled to deploy from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2016, a Kickstarter is currently running to fund the second mission and is already 300% funded with at least 36 days left.

Below is an artist concept of the fully deployed Sail planned to fly in 2016.

LS-prox-1

Is NASA out of the Space Business?

It is now 2015 and in July it would have been four years since an American Spacecraft launched a crew into space. I have heard many people say that NASA is no longer in the space business because of this.

In this article we will explore not only the missions that are currently operating in space, but also the activities that NASA and it’s partners are engaged in currently that will not only bring manned space flight back to US soil but will bring multiple options for launches to the table.

Current Missions in Space

International Space Station (ISS) – We will start with the biggest mission currently operating in space, the ISS which is located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has been permanently occupied for 5200+ days and counting (since 2nd November 2000).

For the majority of the time there are six crew members on board at the same time, when the space shuttle was flying this could increase to thirteen. At present the crews travel to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft which remains docked to the station while they are on board. Occasionally the crew will step outside the spacecraft to perform spacewalks to maintain the spacecraft and change out experiments etc.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2024 and may be longer depending on the hardware. In 2017/18 the crew complement is expected to increase to seven as new crew transportation options become available (see later).

At present NASA has two US commercial companies providing cargo services to the ISS, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX with another round of awards coming soon.

Earth Observation Missions – NASA currently has 18 satellites in space observing our own planet, plus two more systems on the ISS. The image below shows all the missions currently operating.

EarthSat_HD

Sun Observation Missions – NASA currently has XXX satellites either directly observing the Sun or observing the effects the Sun has on the solar system.

Mars Exploration Missions – NASA currently has three satellites and two rovers exploring Mars with another lander and rover in the works.

Mercury – The Messenger spacecraft has been exploring Mercury since 2011.

Jupiter – The Juno spacecraft is currently on route to Jupiter and is scheduled to arrive in 2016.

Saturn – The Cassini spacecraft which was launched in 1997 and has been in orbit of Saturn since 2004 continues to return a wealth of information about Saturn and it’s moons.

Pluto – The New Horizons spacecraft is currently racing to a July 2015 flyby of Pluto and will then continue onto another distance world even further away.  The primary science mission for the flyby has started and will continue throughout the flyby.  This will be the closest ever view of the planetary system.

And Beyond – The Dawn spacecraft is currently approaching Ceres and continues to return amazing views of the distance dwarf planet.  The Voyager spacecraft are the further human made objects and continue to move further away.  There is still some debate as to whether they have actually left our Solar System yet as the boundary isn’t fully known yet.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking amazing images since 1990 changes our view on the Universe.

NASA’s Future Plans

Commercial Crew Program – NASA has award Boeing and SpaceX contracts to develop the ability to launch crew to the ISS. With at least two actual flights for each company under the contract. The first missions are expected in 2017, once the two vehicles are online and able to deliver crew to the ISS NASA plans to increase the crew complement to seven to allow more experiments to be performed.

In addition to these there is also Sierra Nevada who despite losing out on a contract have been working on there Dream Chaser spacecraft and have vowed to continue development.

Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA is also busy building it’s own rocket and spacecraft which is designed to take crew further into space than ever before. The first launch of the spacecraft happened late last year without a crew to verify the design, the lessons learnt from this mission will be applied to future versions of the spacecraft. The first flight of the SLS is expected in 2018 although the date has slipped several times so only time will tell, this will also be an un-crewed mission with the first crewed mission expected some time in the early 2020’s.

NASA are also working on an Asteroid Redirect Mission which will allow a crew to explore the surface of an asteroid by capturing it and moving it into a Sis-Lunar orbit. This will be a two phase mission with a spacecraft tasked with moving the asteroid (or part of one), and then the second mission the crew travelling to the redirected asteroid to explore it.

As of this article a final decision on the first phase of the mission had not been announced.

Mars – NASA continues to explore Mars with a lander (InSight) planned for launch in 2016 and another Curiosity sized rover to launch in 2020.

Asteroid – The OSIRIS-REx mission will visit asteroid Bennu in 2018 to retrieve samples to be returned to Earth.

Europa – In the recently released NASA FY 2016 budget initial plans were including for a mission for Europa.

Beyond – The James Webb Space Telescope currently scheduled to launch in 2018 will significantly change our view on the Universe.

Summary

While at present the US doesn’t have the ability to launched crewed missions into space and have been reliant on the Russians it is clear that this will change reasonably soon with the potential of having three or more launch options.

In addition it is very clear that NASA is far from out of the Space Business and in fact is way ahead of any other nation in how far into the Solar System (and beyond) they have traveled.  We are still the only country to successfully land on Mars, although it does look like the Beagle 2 spacecraft did land but failed to deploy correctly.

Orion completes maiden voyage

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has completed it’s maiden voyage with a successful splashdown in the pacific ocean.  After the launch this morning a number of tests were performed during the two orbit mission, Orion was the first human rated spacecraft to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 which flew 42 years ago.

This mission allowed NASA and Lockheed Martin, the prime Orion contractor, to verify some of the following:-

  1. The heat shield, further tests will be performed once the spacecraft has been retrieve to give them a full understanding on the effects the re-entry had.
  2. How the systems coped as they traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts.
  3. How the payload fairing and launch abort system worked during liftoff.

Initial indications show that there were no critical issues during the whole mission with one minor issue after splashdown where one or more of the stabilization balloons on top of the vehicle didn’t deploy correctly.  The flight was very successful showing that the heat shield could withstand the heat of re-entry, tests after the landing will show how much of the Ablator on the shield was burned off.

Unfortunately now we will have to wait another four years before the next flight of Orion which will also be the debut of the Space Launch System rocket,

Below are some images captured from NASA TV during the mission, of the return and splashdown of Orion

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