Archive for March, 2014

Power beaming from space to Earth is attracting technologists. Credit: John Mankins

Power beaming from space to Earth is attracting technologists.
Credit: John Mankins


The idea of power-beaming from space to Earth has long been studied. Lots of issues brought forward within lots of reports over lots of years.

New work by the U.S. Naval Laboratory (NRL) has shed new light on how to build spacecraft to first capture solar power in space and then transmit that power down to an energy-hungry Earth.

Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer at NRL, has built and tested a module to capture and transmit solar power.

Jaffe has built two different prototypes of a “sandwich” module. In both designs, one side receives solar energy with a photovoltaic panel, electronics in the middle convert that direct current to a radiofrequency, and the other side has an antenna to beam power away.

Hardware that could bring about power-beaming spacecraft has been tested at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Paul Jaffe holds a module he designed for space solar power in front of the customized vacuum chamber used for testing purposes. Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

Hardware that could bring about power-beaming spacecraft has been tested at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Paul Jaffe holds a module he designed for space solar power in front of the customized vacuum chamber used for testing purposes.
Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

Keeping things light

“Launching mass into space is very expensive,” says Jaffe, so finding a way to keep the components light is an essential part of his design. He can cradle one module in his forearms.

The sandwich module is four times more efficient than anything done previously, according to an NRL press statement.

Jaffe’s work also involves a novel approach to solving the thermal problem, using the “step” module. That step module design, now in the patent process, opens up the sandwich to look more like a zig-zag. This allows heat to radiate more efficiently, so the module can receive greater concentrations of sunlight without overheating.

Two different prototypes of a sandwich module have been fabricated. In both designs, one side receives solar energy with a photovoltaic panel, electronics in the middle convert that direct current to a radiofrequency, and the other side has an antenna to beam power away.

Additionally, Jaffe has tested his module design using a customized vacuum chamber to simulate the space environment.

Large array

“The most sobering thing about all of this is scale,” Jaffe adds. He imagines a one kilometer array of modules…not to mention the auxiliary sun reflectors. To date, the International Space Station is the only spacecraft that has come close. It stretches a little longer than an American football field.

The array Jaffe envisions would span nine football fields.

In scoping out a future power-beaming satellite, Jaffe said the modules would have to be launched separately, and then assembled in space by robots.

That research is already being advanced by NRL’s Space Robotics Group.

Ripe for research

Admittedly, Jaffe notes that there are many areas ripe for research, such as the system that would reflect and concentrate sunlight onto the modules.

One proposal is to make the module even lighter, by using thinner solar panels, a flatter and lighter antenna, and using what’s called a monolithic microwave integrated circuit to put loads of functionality into a little chip.

Another prospect is a demonstration mission to assemble elements as an array in space to investigate other challenges, Jaffe concludes.

 

Project MERCCURI patch

Citizen science is blazing a trail into Earth orbit.

Onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon capsule soon to be headed for the International Space Station (ISS) are microbes collected from across the United States.

The effort is known as Project MERCCURI. It investigates how microbes from different places on Earth compare to each other and to those found on the ISS.

Project MERCCURI is a citizen science collaboration between UC Davis, Science Cheerleader and SciStarter.com. Thousands of people have participated in the endeavor.

Swabbed: shoes and cell phones

For example, led by the Science Cheerleaders — current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers — several Pop Warner cheer teams swabbed practice fields, shoes, and cell phones for microbes.

Other people collected microbial samples at NFL, NBA, and MLB stadiums; from schools; from landmarks like the Liberty Bell, Sue the T-Rex, the statue of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; and during events including Yuri’s Nights – a series of gatherings across the country to commemorate the first human in space, Soviet space pioneer, Yuri Gagarin.

Selected were 48 microbes. Given approval from NASA, those microbes are set to ride inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule, blasting off from Florida toward the ISS on March 16th.

Big insight from microbes

Scientists hope to gain insights into what is living at the space station, how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space, and to compare growth of microbes on Earth and in microgravity.

Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term human spaceflight said David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis, “but also has the possibility of giving us new insight into how these microbes behave in built environments on Earth.”

Project MERCCURI is coordinated by Science Cheerleader, SciStarter.com, and UC Davis, in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory. The Project is made possible by Space Florida, NanoRacks, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

NOTE: Want to keep your space eye on Project MERCCURI as it continues over the next several months?

Go to: http://www.spacemicrobes.org/

Credit: Tom Swanson

Credit: Tom Swanson

X 15 BOOK COVER 2X-15: The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots Who Ushered in the Space Age by John Anderson and Richard Passman; Zenith Press/Quayside Publishing Group, Minneapolis, MN.; Licensed by Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; $30.00 (hard cover); 2014.

This account of the pioneering X-15 program (flying from 1959 into 1968) is a highly enjoyable read. The authors have written a superb book, detailing how this experimental space plane effort proved essential to mastering hypersonic aerodynamics, winged reentry from space, and gave NASA a leg up on developing the Space Shuttle decades later.

Rocketing out of the “sensible atmosphere,” the X-15 was a “need for speed” development. And as the authors note, the unique craft remains today the fastest and highest-flying piloted airplane in existence – although one does wonder about those classified craft that surely benefited by the X-15 experience.

Three X-15s were built, with the last flight taking place on October 24, 1968 – the 199th flight of the program.

The book takes the reader from the genesis of the X-15 and backing by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the precursor group to NASA – through nearly 200 flights by the rocket plane. The volume’s 144-pages are peppered with a striking roundup of images that showcase the X-15’s impressive run.

But more than hardware is spotlighted in this book. Winding through the pages are captivating tales of the risks and dangers of flying the X-15, manhandled by crack test pilots that included Neil Armstrong, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, Bill Dana, Bob White, and Joe Engle.

The book also reports on the tragic loss of Mike Adams, the only pilot to lose his life flying the X-15.

“Each of the X-15 test flights was an example of intense man-machine interaction,” the authors write, “and each of the twelve pilots who flew the X-15 were as finely tuned and technologically sophisticated as the machine itself.”

In closing words, Anderson and Passman explain that feasible hypersonic manned flight still lies ahead, “and when that happens, the X-15 will indeed be the ‘Wright Flyer’ of its kind.”

So when you walk through the halls of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, don’t forget to look up at the X-15 suspended in the Milestones of Flight Gallery – a history-making craft that nosed its way into the future.

For more information on this book, go to:

http://www.qbookshop.com/products/210839/9780760344453/X-15.html

Credit: MarsFest 2014

Credit: MarsFest 2014

 

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Credit: National Park Service

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Credit: National Park Service

Take a walk on Mars…without leaving Earth!

Check out the third annual MarsFest in Death Valley National Park, being held March 28-30 within the breathtaking desert valley located in Eastern California.

Visitors of all ages are invited to MarsFest 2014 – to elevate public awareness about planetary analog research taking place at special spots on Earth.

MarsFest 2014 is a collaboration of the National Park Service, the SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Death Valley National Park has several planetary analog research sites within its boundaries.

This event brings together the public, scientists, and national park enthusiasts to explore the research being done in this field.

MarsFest 2014 will be opened by a key note speaker and will feature scientist-led field trips to analog sites such as Mars Hill, Badwater Basin, Ubehebe Volcanic Field, and Mesquite Sand Dunes, as well as guest lectures and special presentations at the park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

A key component is the NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission team, represented by the Sample Analysis at Mars education and public outreach team.

The first two MarsFest weekends were held in 2012 and 2013 and were well received, setting the stage for MarsFest 2014.

For more information contact:

Rosalba Bonaccorsi at NASA Ames Research Center:

rosalba.bonaccorsi-1@nasa.gov

Terry Baldino at Death Valley National Park :

terry_baldino@nps.gov

For information on Death Valley National Park, go to:

http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm

Credit: NASA/Ames

Credit: NASA/Ames

Mars return sample back to Earth – with a SpaceX twist!

My new story up on SPACE.com:

Project ‘Red Dragon’: Mars Sample-Return Mission Could Launch in 2022 with SpaceX Capsule

http://www.space.com/24984-spacex-mars-mission-red-dragon.html

 

Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

Up on SPACE.com – a revealing look at this concept:

‘Faxing’ Life from Mars: Craig Venter’s Wild, Digital Space Exploration Idea

http://www.space.com/24923-faxing-life-from-mars-craig-venter.html

Credit: MIT

Credit: MIT

A top-notch team of MIT engineers has scoped out orbiting way stations – one such depot placed somewhere between the Earth and the Moon.

Once in place, this type of filling station could reduce the fuel a spacecraft needs to carry from Earth. That means, with less fuel onboard, a rocket could launch heavier payloads, such as large scientific experiments.

The MIT team proposes using contingency propellant from past missions to fuel future spacecraft.

For instance, as a mission heads back to Earth, it may drop a tank of contingency propellant at a depot before heading home. The next mission can pick up the fuel tank on its way to the Moon as its own emergency supply.

If it ends up not needing the extra propellant, it can also drop it at the depot for the next mission — an arrangement that the team refers to as a “steady-state” approach.

Study team

Leading the study is former astronaut, Jeffrey Hoffman, a professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Hoffman and his students — Koki Ho, Katherine Gerhard, Austin Nicholas, and Alexander Buck – have outlined their depot architecture in the journal Acta Astronautica.

A depot may also accumulate contingency propellant from multiple missions, part of an approach the researchers call “stockpiling.”

Lagrange points

In the MIT study, spacecraft heading to the Moon would carry contingency propellant as they normally would, dropping the tank at a depot on the way back to Earth if it’s not needed; over time, the depot builds up a large fuel supply.

This way, if a large lunar mission launches in the future, its rocket wouldn’t need a huge fuel supply to launch the heavier payload. Instead, it can stop at the depot to collect the stockpiled propellant to fuel its landing on the Moon.

The MIT team came up with two depot designs to improve the efficiency of the basic scenario, according to an MIT press statement.

In both designs, depots would be stationed at Lagrange points — regions in space between the Earth, Moon, and Sun that maintain gravitational equilibrium. Objects at these points remain in place, keeping the same relative position with respect to the Earth and the Moon.

By Leonard David

The long and short of space elevators - use of Moon-based tether. Credit: LiftPort

The long and short of space elevators – use of Moon-based tether. Credit: LiftPort

My new SPACE.com story can be found here:

Futuristic Moon Elevator Idea Takes Aim at Lunar Lifts


http://www.space.com/24905-moon-elevator-lunar-exploration-liftport.html

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided look-see views of China’s Chang’e 3 lander and the Yutu moon rover.

A block of four Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera views have been released showing the Chang’e 3 landing site: A) before landing, taken on June 30, 2013, B) after landing, snapped on December 25, 2013, C) on January 21, 2014, and D) on February 17, 2014.

Each image is enlarged by a factor of two, width of each is 200 meters (656 feet).

Thanks to the imagery, you can follow Yutu’s path clockwise around the lander in panel D.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Griffith Observatory Event