Showing posts from May, 2017

Will Warp Drive Be A Reality in Our Lifetime?

Well, your kids won’t be traveling by the speed of light—probably not their kids either—but new theoretical advances may mean that warp drive will someday become a reality. Light travels at 186,000 mi/sec—if we could move that fast today, we could circle the Earth along the equator 7.5 times per second. Or travel to Mars in 3 minutes. We’re nowhere near the ability to travel at or close to the speed of light today, making warp drive—or faster-than-light (FTL)—travel seem like an insurmountable feat best left for the fictional realm. But, back in 1994, the idea of faster-than-light (FTL) travel became a possibility when physicist Miguel Alcubierre hypothesized a way to travel FTL on a “magic carpet” that doesn’t actually move at all. Because no object can move faster than the speed of light, we would instead travel by remaining still on a piece of space-time (i.e., the carpet) that sits inside a warp bubble capable of moving at FTL speed.

This all rests on the idea that there is no li…

A better ion drive for more efficient space travel

Plasma propulsion – or an ion drive – is common in science fiction, where it can represent a clean, futuristic alternative to the mess and blast of crudely burning rocket fuel. Though it is the most efficient space propulsion method yet devised, it is still rare in reality, where ion drives are weighed down by the bulky engineering currently required to manage the ionised gas propellant.

However, researchers from the University of York in the UK and the École Polytechnique in Paris have taken a major step towards solving the problem.

Existing systems use an electric current to ionize propellant gas and turn it into plasma. The charged ions and electrons are then forced through an exhaust beam, creating thrust.

Current technology – usually in a form known as a gridded-ion thruster – generates more positively charged ions than negative ones. And while that might be useful for moving an object through space, it is also potentially self-defeating.

If the charge imbalance is allowed to re…

Trump budget keeps NASA mostly intact but jettisons a few Obama priorities

WASHINGTON – This is no longer Obama’s NASA.

Even though the space agency would get roughly the same $19 billion it received this year, key programs the former president championed – an asteroid mission, several climate change research projects, robust education outreach – would disappear under President Trump’s budget for 2018.

The most high-profile missions remain on target: the continued development of the Space Launch System and Orion vehicle intended to take astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, the launch next year of the James Webb Space Telescope, and the use of private companies to keep delivering cargo and – possibly by the end of 2018 – humans to the International Space Station from American soil.

“What this budget tells us to do is keep going, keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said Tuesday in a speech to agency employees.

In a $4.1 trillion federal budget proposal that saw some agencies slashed by 10% or more, NASA fared well. The $19…

Orbit of Earth-Size Exoplanet TRAPPIST-1h in Alien Solar System Nailed Down

The orbits of all seven Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are now known.

Astronomers have nailed down the path of TRAPPIST-1h, the outermost planet in the system, finding that this world takes just under 19 Earth days to complete one lap around its small, faint host star.

The new result suggests that TRAPPIST-1h is too cold to host life as we know it, and it confirms that all seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds circle their star in a sort of gravitational lockstep with one another, study team members said.

"It's incredibly exciting that we're learning more about this planetary system elsewhere, especially about planet h, which we barely had information on until now," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

"This finding is a great example of how the scientific community is unleashing the power of complementary data from our different missions to m…

Given the hazards of landing on Mars, SpaceX may send two Dragons in 2020

Elon Musk has spoken favorably about NASA's Mars Exploration Rover missions.

In recent months, SpaceX has acknowledged that it will not be able to launch an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2018. The technology to send the capsule safely through deep space and propulsively land it on Mars just won't be ready. However, that delay opens up an opportunity to launch two Dragons in 2020. And that's what SpaceX appears likely to do.

NASA's manager of science missions, Jim Green, said on Tuesday that the 2020 launch window when Earth and Mars are in favorable alignment for relatively short transits is getting crowded. Speaking Tuesday at the Humans to Mars conference in Washington, DC, Green said, "Every 26 months, the highway to Mars opens up, and that highway is going to be packed. We start out at the top of that opportunity with a SpaceX launch of Red Dragon. That will be followed at the end of that opportunity with another Red Dragon. Those have been announced b…

Buzz Aldrin to NASA: Retire the International Space Station ASAP to Reach Mars

If NASA and its partner agencies are serious about putting boots on Mars in the near future, they should pull the plug on the International Space Station (ISS) at the earliest opportunity, Buzz Aldrin said.

"We must retire the ISS as soon as possible," the former Apollo 11 moonwalker said Tuesday (May 9) during a presentation at the 2017 Humans to Mars conference in Washington, D.C. "We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost."

Instead, Aldrin said, NASA should continue to hand over activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to private industry partners. Indeed, the space agency has been encouraging that move by awarding contracts to companies such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Boeing to ferry cargo and crew to and from the ISS.

Bigelow Aerospace, Axiom Space or other companies should build and operate LEO space stations that are independent of the ISS, he added. Ideally, the first of these commercial outposts would share key orbital parameters with the statio…

NASA's Mars Plan May Include Yearlong Mission to the Moon

A group of astronauts may spend a year in orbit around the moon in the late 2020s as part of NASA's plan to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, agency officials said today (May 9).

Greg Williams, NASA's deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in the agency's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, spoke today at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington D.C. and provided a detailed look at the first two phases of NASA's current plan to send humans to Mars.

The agency recently announced that its Mars plan now includes building a "deep-space gateway" around the moon to serve as a testing ground for operations and technology that will be required for those Red Planet missions, Williams said. Eventually, the lunar presence would also serve as a launching point for the spacecraft that will carry humans to Mars, he added. The yearlong crewed mission around the moon in 2027 is one of the major future milestones of the current plan.

Before that…

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope completes testing at Goddard

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) successfully completed the center of curvature test, a crucial optical measurement of the telescope’s primary mirror prior to cryogenic testing, and the final test at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The spacecraft will be shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for more testing.

“The Webb telescope is about to embark on its next step in reaching the stars as it has successfully completed its integration and testing at Goddard,” said Bill Ochs, NASA’s Web telescope project manager. “It has taken a tremendous team of talented individuals to get to this point from all across NASA, our industry and international partners, and academia. It is also a sad time as we say goodbye to the Webb Telescope at Goddard, but are excited to begin cryogenic testing at Johnson.”

JWST will experience high levels of noise and vibration during the rocket launch that will carry into space. Engineers at Goddard tested the space tel…

Astronomers Detect Atmosphere Around Super-Earth Planet GJ 1132b

Using ESO/MPG telescope in Chile, a team of astronomers has detected an atmosphere around an Earth-like planet for the first time. The planet, super-Earth planet GJ 1132b, is located 39 light-years away.

Researchers have detected an atmosphere around the super-Earth planet GJ 1132b. This marks the first detection of an atmosphere around an Earth-like planet other than Earth itself, and thus is a significant step on the path towards the detection of life outside our Solar System. The team that made the discovery, led by Keele University’s Dr John Southworth, used the 2.2 m ESO/MPG telescope in Chile to take images of the planet’s host star GJ 1132. They were able to measure the slight decrease in brightness as the planet and its atmosphere absorbed some of the starlight while transiting (passing in front of) the host star.

Dr John Southworth explains:

“While this is not the detection of life on another planet, it’s an important step in the right direction: the detection of an atmosphere…

The moon is the gateway to NASA’s exploration future

NASA may not know exactly where it’s going in human spaceflight, but it knows how it will get there.

The agency’s current plans, of course, call for human missions to Mars, first into orbit around the red planet as soon as 2033, followed eventually by trips to the Martian surface. But those plans are clouded by the uncertainty that comes with a change in presidential administrations. NASA is waiting on the nomination of a new administrator and expected re-establishment of the National Space Council to provide guidance for the agency. NASA not only does not have a detailed fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, it’s still waiting on a final 2017 spending bill, nearly seven months into the current fiscal year.

Yet, despite that uncertainty, NASA is providing more details about its future steps in human spaceflight beyond the International Space Station. In recent weeks, agency officials have laid out its exploration vision for the 2020s, including the creation of a small space station in th…

NASA Seeks Information on Commercial Moon Missions

NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) about commercial missions capable of carrying NASA payloads to the lunar surface.

“The requirement is to provide a commercial launch and landing service on existing or forthcoming FAA licensed commercial missions to the lunar surface for NASA primary payloads, NASA secondary payloads, or NASA hosted payloads, with the potential to also procure data from any commercial lunar surface missions and/or return payloads or samples to the Earth,” the RFI states.

“NASA has identified a variety of exploration, science, and technology demonstration objectives that could be addressed by sending instruments, experiments, or other payloads to the lunar surface. To address these objectives as cost-effectively as possible, NASA may procure payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon,” the request adds.

Currently, the only known FAA-licensed commercial mission to the lunar surface will be conducted by Moon Express. The company …

Stephen Hawking gives us 100 years to escape Earth – and looks into how to do it

In an upcoming TV documentary, British physicist Stephen Hawking revives his prediction that humanity will have to spread out a new home in space within 100 years in order to ensure the species’ survival.

But this time, he’s looking into how it can be done.

The two-part documentary, titled “Expedition New Earth,” is due to air on BBC Two as part of the British network’s revived “Tomorrow’s World” TV series.

Hawking has repeatedly warned of the potential threats facing humanity, including nuclear war, rapid climate change, potential pandemics, catastrophic asteroid strikes and even a robot uprising. That echoes similar warnings issued by Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX.

Last November, Hawking told an audience at Oxford Union in Cambridge, “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet.” Hawking has previously referred to shorter time scales, on the order of 100 to 200 years.

“Expedition New Earth” takes Hawking’s argument several st…

SOFIA Confirms Nearby Planetary System is Similar to Our Own

NASA’s flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, recently completed a detailed study of a nearby planetary system. The investigations confirmed that this nearby planetary system has an architecture remarkably similar to that of our solar system.

Located 10.5 light-years away in the southern hemisphere of the constellation Eridanus, the star Epsilon Eridani, eps Eri for short, is the closest planetary system around a star similar to the early sun. It is a prime location to research how planets form around stars like our sun, and is also the storied location of the Babylon 5 space station in the science fictional television series of the same name.

Previous studies indicate that eps Eri has a debris disk, which is the name astronomers give to leftover material still orbiting a star after planetary construction has completed. The debris can take the form of gas and dust, as well as small rocky and icy bodies. Debris disks can be broad, continuous d…

NASA inflatable greenhouse could help feed astronauts on other planets

If we hope to someday inhabit other planets, astronauts will need more sources of nourishment than the packets of freeze-dried space food they can take with them. It's not just the nutritional value of fresh produce that has NASA interested in growing greens -- researchers think that astronauts would also get a psychological boost from farming.

To that end, NASA collaborated with researchers at the University of Arizona to design an inflatable greenhouse that can be deployed in space and offer astronauts a sustainable bounty of fresh vegetables.

The greenhouse prototype was built as a "bioregenerative life support system" -- meaning it recycles air, waste, and water. As astronauts breathe out, they release carbon dioxide, which the plants use to generate oxygen through photosynthesis. Water flows through the roots and back to a storage tank where it's oxygenated and fortified in a constant cycle. To avoid radiation, the greenhouses would likely be buried under soil,…