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.

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.

Humans vs Robots for Space Exploration

Last week the European Space Agency achieved an important milestone in the history of Space Exploration with the first landing on a Comet. The lander named Philae was released from it’s parent spacecraft Rosetta and seven hours later touched down in the surface. Due to some complications the spaecraft ended up bouncing and landed two additional times coming to rest in a location that resulted in it not getting nearly enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.

There is a possibility that as the Comet travels around the Sun there may be more sunlight available that would allow the lander to have enough power to start up again but there is no guarantee of that.

Since this happened there has been quite a debate about the advantages of robotic vs human exploration.

In this post we will explore the advantages and dis-advantages of each and why we believe there is an important place for each.

Robotic Missions

(A) The first and biggest advantage is the reduced overhead of providing for a human crew from Life Support, Food, Water, Waste Management, etc.

(A) Due to the lack of advanced space propulsion systems travel within our own Solar System takes a long time. Robotic missions to deeper into the Solar System handle this by designing the necessary protections and in the case of recent missions long hibernation periods.

(A) Can visit places that are either too extreme for human’s or we don’t know enough about yet to risk human visitors.

(D) Can only adapted to scenarios that have been pre-programmed and then only depending on the abilities given to the robotic mission. Take for example the Philae lander, it ended up in a location that wasn’t ideal for the vehicle and doesn’t have the capabilities to address that itself.

(D) If something breaks it may be impossible to repair it depending what capabilities where built into the spacecraft.

Human Missions

(A) Can perform a much wider range of experiments and make decisions on what to sample.

(A) Can quickly adapt to situations as they happened rather than having to communicate back to Earth and waiting for new commands. For example on the way to Mars come across a Comet or Asteroid they could adapt the mission to observe it or even visit it depending no impact to overall mission.

(A) Can make repairs and upgrades during the mission if something goes wrong which is inevitable with anything and with the advances in 3D printing new parts could be created by the crew and replaced as they are travelling.

(D) Require a lot of resources, need to have enough for the whole mission plus some contingencies for emergencies. Getting all these resources into space either from Earth or in the future from in-space mining etc will cost money and add risk for each launch needed.

(D) We know the effects weightlessness has on the body from research done so far on the ISS and other space stations. For longer duration missions we would need to ensure this is handled, and depending on the mission, and it’s length there could be different ways to handle this.

(D) If something catastrophic happens there may not be abort scenarios that would allow the crew to survive or even get back to Earth. A mission to Mars takes many months of travel when the alignment is optimal and could be significantly longer if not.

Conclusion

There are clearly advantages and dis-advantages to each, we believe that there are important places for both in the future.

Until such time as we have much faster transportation in space deep space missions are just too long for humans to do without spending vast amounts of money, therefore robotic missions are needed.

We also need manned missions to help us continue to learn about surviving in space.

Even in the future shown in Star Trek or other movies it is clear that a combination of Manned and Robotics is used for exploration.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the Human vs Robot discussion below in the comments.