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.


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.


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
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.


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.

And then there were six

This morning Oleg Kononenko, Andre Kuipers and Don Pettit successfully launched from Kazakhstan aboard their Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft heading to the space station to complete the full Expedition 30 crew and once again return the station to a six man crew.

Despite the bitter cold weather, the crew launched on time and will now spend two days chasing the station before the automated docking to the Rassvet module.  As with all the Soyuz craft the crew will have the ability to manually dock if needed.

Oleg Kononenko
Oleg Kononenko, 47, will serve as a flight engineer for Expedition 30 and commander for Expedition 31. He first flew as a Soyuz and International Space Station commander for the Expedition 17 crew in 2008. He also performed two spacewalks during the increment, acquiring more than 12 hours of extravehicular experience.

Andre Kuipers
European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, 58, will return to space for his second spaceflight mission. A medical doctor, he flew aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in 2004 as part of the DELTA mission. During the flight, he performed 21 science experiments. He will serve as a flight engineer for this mission.

Donald Pettit
NASA astronaut Donald Pettit, 56, holds a doctorate in chemical engineering,
will be embarking on his third spaceflight and second long-duration mission.
He previously served as flight engineer during Expedition 6 in 2002 and 2003 and
as mission specialist on STS-126 in 2008. He will again serve as flight engineer during
the upcoming mission.

Once on the space station the crew will be running a number of scientific experiments as well as all the maintenance tasks needed to keep the station operating at peak efficiency. There are no planned U.S. spacewalks during this Expedition but the crew is always ready should the need occur to perform one.  With the recently announced SpaceX dragon flight in February 2012 the Expedition 30 crew will be the first to receive a spacecraft from a commercial company.

The full overview of the science being performed by the crew can be found here.

NASA Discovers First Earth-size Planets

Two weeks ago NASA announced the first planet is the habitable zone of another star.  Yesterday they announced the discovery of the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system.

The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is a bit larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, would melt glass.

Kepler Planet Lineup

On a separate note, NASA announced that the Kepler spacecraft experienced a processor reset on 12/7 most likely due to a galactic cosmic-ray burst.  They were able to quickly recover the spacecraft which is now operating as expected.  This again highlights the extreme dangers of working in space and some of the factors that must be taking into consideration when designing space missions especially when talking about human deep space missions.

Stratolaunch Systems

Today we return to our commercial space series as we look at a new player to the field.

Paul G. Allen and Burt Rutan announced yesterday that they were once again partnering to revolutionize the space launch industry.  Their last adventure led to the Ansari X Prize winning SpaceShipOne craft which achieved three sub-orbital flights to win the prize in 2004 and is the pre-cursor to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

The Stratolaunch System (SLS) will consist of four primary elements: a carrier aircraft, a multi-stage booster, a mating and integration system, and an orbital payload.  Initially the payloads will be unmanned but longer term after the system has been proven manned missions will also be included.  To achieve this SLS will be a partnership between Scaled Composites (carrier aircraft), SpaceX (multi-stage booster) and Dynetics (mating and integration system).

The carrier aircraft will be a much larger version of the WhiteKnightTwo craft used by Virgin with a wing-span of 385 feet and be powered by six 747 engines.  The craft will weight more than 1.2 million pounds, require a 12,000 foot runaway of takeoff and landing and will be the biggest aircraft ever built.

The multi-stage booster will be derived from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The mating and integration system (MIS) will have the capacity to carrier up to 500,000 pounds.  As well as providing the interface point to the Booster.

Unfortunately the system will not be ready much before 2016 but again the future looks bright for the US launch industry in the future.  With the backing of Paul G. Allen there is little doubt that they will succeed.

More details are available on there web site including animations of the SLS.






Kepler – A Search for Habitable Planets

This week the Kepler mission confirmed its First Planet in Habitable Zone of a Sun-like Star, they increased the number of planet candidates to 2365, they celebrated 1000 days in space and finally held their first science conference.  Today we take a look at the Kepler mission and what it has discovered so far.

The Kepler mission was launched on 6th March 2009, once in orbit and after complete a series of validation tests began scientific observations.  Unlike other missions, which look at different regions of the sky based on requests, the Kepler mission is pointing at a single region of sky observing the light from 100,000 stars.  Kepler is looking for signs of transiting planets which cause the brightness of the star to change very minutely.  Once detected it is possible to determine the orbital size of the planet based on how long the change is observed.  To be sure that the observations are correct Kepler needs to see at least three transit which is why it is pointing at the same point most of the time.

Why most of the time? Kepler has to point back to earth once a month to transmit the data it has capture, during this time it cannot observe the stars.  Personally I think this is a design flaw and I hope a successor to Kepler will address this.

Why are they Planet Candidates?  Kepler can only detect the changes in light from a star, therefore once a change has been detected and verified it needs to be confirmed.  Working with different teams around the work they are able to use the other telescopes to actually observe the stars to determine what is really there.

What has Kepler found so far?  Of the 2365 candidates announced so far 31 planets have been confirmed orbiting in 22 systems.  Included in these is the first known planet to orbit around a binary star system (Kepler 16b), the first near earth sized planet detected in habitual zone of the star (Kepler 22b).  Kepler is now starting to see planets that have longer orbital periods, most of the early candidates all have very short periods but the recently annouced Kepler 22b has a 290 day orbit.

What does the future hold?  Kepler has been designed to operate for at least 3.5 years, assuming there are no problems the craft will hopefully continue to operate long after that and provide further lots more candidates with longer orbital periods.

Is that all the planets? No Kepler is only observing one region of the sky and focused on 100,000 stars, it is only able to detect the change in brightness caused by a planet transiting the star.

First this is a very very very small percentage of the known stars in the universe, estimated to be 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 300 sextillion.  So far in 1,000 days of obervation we have detected 2365 candidates from the 100,000 stars (0.02365%).  If we use the same percentage of the estimate there could be as many as 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 7 sextillion planets in the universe.

Second Kepler can only see the planets that move directly in front of the star from our line of sight.  We know for a fact from other observations using other methods that there are exoplanets that Kepler cannot see, therefore we could conclude from this that each known method could have the same number of candidates in the universe.  This continue to increase as Kepler finds more candidates.

What’s next? The next big observatory that is planned to be launched is the James Webb Space Telescope which will have the power to see some of these planet candidates and allow us to really see the finer details of these planets.  At present there is no details of a planned follow up to Kepler but hopefully the number of candidates already returned will encourage NASA to look into one.




The History of Mars Exploration (NASA)

To follow up the successful launch of MSL, which NASA confirmed last night was inserted into an almost perfect trajectory towards Mars, today we take a look at the history of successful Mars Exploration missions by NASA.

The History of Mars Exploration

Year Name Type Summary
1964 Mariner 4 Flyby First spacecraft to flyby of Mars and return close-up pictures of the surface.  Returned 21 images during the flyby.
1969 Mariner 6 Flyby Returned 75 images during flyby and provided data used to program Mariner 7 for it’s flyby five days later.
1969 Mariner 7 Flyby Returned 126 images during it’s flyby.
1971 Mariner 9 Orbiter First spacecraft to orbit another planet, returned 7,329 images while operational.  Still in orbit today and will remain so until about 2022.
1975 Viking 1 Orbiter/Lander First spacecraft to land on Mars, was operational for 2245 sols, contact was lost when a faulty command sequence sent from the ground overwrote the antenna pointing software. The Viking 1 Lander was named the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station in January 1982 in honor of the leader of the Viking imaging team.
1975 Viking 2 Orbiter/Lander Twin of Viking 1 and second spacecraft to land on Mars.  Viking two was operation for 1281 sols, during which time it returned over 16,000 images and a large amount of scientific data.
1996 Mars Global Surveyor Orbiter Arrived at Mars 9/12/1997, began mapping operations in 1996, lose of contact 11/2/2006
1996 Mars Pathfinder Lander/Rover Lander on Mars 7/4/1997, deployed rover Sojourner to explore the surface around the lander.  The lander sent more than 16,500 pictures and made 8.5 million measurements of the atmospheric pressure, temperature and wind speed. Lander renamed Carl Sagan Memorial Station.
2001 Mars Odyssey Orbiter Arrived at Mars 10/24/2001, began orbital operations 2/19/2002.  Still operational today.  As well as providing a large amount of images and scientific data the craft is used as a relay for MER and Phoenix.
2003 Mars Exploration Rover – Spirit Rover See MER Post
2003 Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity Rover See MER Post
2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Orbiter Arrived at Mars 3/10/2006, began orbital operations in 11/2006.  Still operational today with a variety of scientific instruments.  Also provides relay capabilities to MER.  MRO’s telecommunications systems will transfer more data back to earth than all previous spacecraft sent to the planet combined, more than 26 terabits.
2007 Phoenix Mars Lander Lander PML arrived on Mars 5/28/2008 and was operational for 155 sols, the original mission was designed for 90 sols.  The instruments were designed to look for microbial life and water.  Returned more than 25 gigabits of scientific data for analysis.

Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity

This morning the massive Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launched torwards Mars.  Scheduled to land in August 2012 the rover will bring a host of scientific instruments to the planet and continue the exploration that started in 1975 with the Viking landers.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)

By far the largest rover every launched to another planet the MSL is a risky mission.  The rover is five times bigger and carriers more than ten times the mass of scientific instruments than the MER rovers.  In additional MSL will attempt the first precision landing on Mars, which will be achieved by a sky crane that will lower the rover to the surface before flying off and crashing into the surface.

Unlike it’s predecessors, which were solar powered, MSL will use an radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).  This will allow the rover to operate day and night and also has the advantage that the heat generated by the process can be used to keep the components warm meaning more electricity will be available to the instruments.

Once on the surface the rover will wake up and begin it’s mission, designed to operate for at least a martian year (668 Martian sols/686 Earth days) MSL will using it’s various scientific instruments to determine the habitability of Mars for microbial life.

MSL is carrying an impressive array of instruments which will enable it to take samples of Martian rocks and analyze them.  Rather than repeat the information I have included a link to the Mars Science Laboratory site.

The plan is to land MSL at Gale Crater which spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.[1]

Now all we have to do is wait until next August when Curiosity lands.

1 –

Mars Exploration Rovers

Tomorrow NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to begin an eight month journey to the red planet.  Today we take a look at it’s predecessors the highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers.

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)

Launched in 2003 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to explore the surface and geology of Mars.  The two rovers were launching within a month of each other and used an airbag landing to arrive on the surface of Mars eight months later in early 2004.

Each rover was designed to operate for 90 sols (Sol is a day on Mars, which is almost 40m longer than a day on earth).  The rovers far exceeded there designed life with Spirit finally giving up after ~2208 sols.  Opportunity is still operational today over 2777 sols after arriving on the planet.

The rovers have provided a wealth of information from the surface of Mars and have demonstrated that we can operate in distant environments for extended periods of time.

While the rovers have been active for a long time they certainly have had some luck along the way and have to rest during the winter months due to not having enough solar energy to charge the battery.

Several times during the mission NASA noticed that the power levels on the rovers suddenly increased having declined due to the buildup of dust on the solar panels.  They determine later that these were because of wind gusts called dust devil’s that had hit the rover cleaning off the dust, this was confirmed in 2010 when Opportunity spotted a wind gust (dust devil).

Since arriving on the planet each of the rovers has sent back a large amount of pictures,  including panoramic views of the environment around the rover.  These images are available on NASA’s Mars Rover web site.

We don’t know how much longer Opportunity will operate for, soon it will enter it’s next winter hibernation period.  However as long as it has power, is communicating and NASA has funding we can expect more from the amazing rover.

Opportunity's View Approaching Rim of Endeavour Crater

NASA Budget

This week the new Budget was signed into law and NASA’s funding for the Commercial Crew development has been slashed.  So what does this mean for the future?

As we are currently looking at Commercial Space and the different teams who are involved it seems appropriate to review this further and see what real impact this has.

The final budget for Commercial Crew has come out at $406 million which is less then half the original $850 million requested.  The Senate and House appropriations committees passed legislation calling for commercial crew funding levels of $500 million and $312 million, respectively.  A conference committee between lawmakers agreed to a compromise budget at $406 million.

This has serious implications for the Commercial Crew Development program, NASA currently has four companies working towards milestones each which has specific financial rewards associated with them.  While the money for the current set of milestones is already secure the reduce budget does have implications for future milestones.  Either NASA will have to reduce the number of companies they are working with or slow down the pace of development.  Neither of these options is ideal as it results in the US and NASA not having a crew capability for longer.

Given that NASA are currently paying $63 million per flight to the space station and have at least 4 crew per year launching by 2015 NASA would have spent between $1 billion and $2 billion getting crew there.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden cautioned legislators that reducing the funding would likely add another 2 years to the program meaning that at the current rate another $500 million to $1 billion will be spent on Soyuz flights.

Several of the companies that are currently working towards Commercial Crew have stated that they can launch for less than the $63 million so this new budget makes no sense for the future of US access to space or the goal of reducing costs.

Personally I hope that none of the companies will stop the work they have begun on Commercial Crew and will step up and show the government that they can reduce the cost of access to space and once again give the US the access to space that it has given up at the present time.