Stunning images reveal SpaceX’s revolutionary approach to landing on Mars

Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX has big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home.

And as mind-blowing as these innovative ideas are, the video animations and illustrations that bring Space X’s goals to life are equally impressive.

But these animations and illustrations aren’t just fiction and propaganda: They are a way for SpaceX to envision the future and make it a reality.

For example, in 2011 SpaceX released a videoshowing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space — something that had never been done before. And in 2015, SpaceX began attempting to land their rockets exactly how they had envisioned in the video.

(Neither of the two attempted landings, so far, have succeeded.)

And if you check out the latest photos and illustrations on SpaceX’s Flickr account, you’ll see something that is even cooler than landing a rocket on Earth: Landing a spacecraft on Mars. And judging from the illustrations, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a super-simple approach that has never been tried before.

This is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceXSpaceX Photos

SpaceX will first send its Dragon capsule to Mars before transporting a crew on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time and is currently being tested by SpaceX for its debut launch, scheduled for 2017.

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceXSpaceX on Flickr

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so simple parachutes won’t slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn’t be a problem heat-wise.

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

But there’s still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars’s atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you’d have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacexSpaceX Photo on Flickr

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceXSpaceX Photo on Flickr

The last major Mars landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process “7 minutes of terror” because that’s how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

SpaceX has not announced when it plans to first send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars. However, there is a project called “Red Dragon” that NASA is considering and would involve sending a Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and then return them to Earth. This project has not yet been selected for funding by NASA but if funded could launch as early as 2022.

  • Jessica Orwig

 

Does oxygen necessarily mean aliens?

Astrobiologists find that the presence of oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere may not necessarily mean that life exists there.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Scientists and E.T. enthusiasts may have to rethink an allegedly telltale sign that a planet has life.

The presence of oxygen, specifically O2 , in a planet’s atmosphere has long been thought to be a near-certain signal that there are, or at least were, living organisms engaging in photosynthesis on the planet. But new research suggests that oxygen can exist in large quantities without being produced by living things.

A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports found that some planets could have “abiotic” oxygen, produced through a a photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide

China aims to be first to land probe on moon’s far side

Image result for far side of the moon

BEIJING (AP) — China’s space program says it plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon’s far side.

 

Zou Yongliao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ moon exploration department told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday that the Chang’e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020.

 

Zou said the objective of the mission would be to study geological conditions on the moon’s far side, also known as the dark side. Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the far side, making it an excellent location to place a radio telescope for use by astronomers.

 

China’s next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples..

 

NASA IS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING TERRAFORMING PART OF THE MOON WITH ROBOTS

By Kelsey D. Atherton
Lunar Transformer Concept

Lunar Transformer Concept

NASA

Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

The project was awarded in NASA’s Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.

[NASA]

German space researchers reboot effort to launch hypersonic space plane

by Sean Gallagher

Goal: 100 passengers, 1-hour intercontinental flights, with test flights by mid-2030s.


From Europe to Australia in 90 minutes—but meal service would be problematic.

The Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Germany’s aerospace research center, has renewed decade-old plans for a suborbital passenger space plane that could fly from Europe to Australia in under 90 minutes. The rocket-powered SpaceLiner, originally conceptualized as a 50-passenger hypersonic airliner, has now been given new urgency and direction with a roadmap for flights within the next 20 years, SpaceLiner project lead Martin Sippel told Aviation Week at last month’s American Institute of Aerodynamics and Astronautics’ Space Planes and Hypersonics Conference in Glasgow. Sippel spoke at the conference, presenting on SpaceLiner’s technical progress and the program’s mission definition—which now includes potentially delivering satellites and other payloads to space.

In addition to providing a fairly exclusive passenger service—which would target an extremely small percentage of the international travel market—the goal of the program is to spur large-scale production of reusable rocket engines and booster vehicles that would reduce the cost of other space missions. “The point-to-point passenger market already exists and is growing,” Sippel told Aviation Week. “We have several hundred million passengers traveling intercontinental distances each year. But even if the share will only be 0.2 percent… from a space perspective that’s a potentially huge impact. We could increase hundredfold the number of launches and, as it is a reusable vehicle designed for between 150 and 300 flights, you have serial production of engines. If you have 11 engines per vehicle then you would build 2,000 engines per year or so. That’s a huge production run, and that was the motivation.”

The DLR SpaceLiner would launch upright with the assistance of an external booster, in a fashion similar to NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle. The booster stage, equipped with its own wings, would be captured after use by a tow aircraft and then be released for an autonomous landing. The main vehicle would glide in a low orbit trajectory and then land like a normal aircraft at its destination, reaching a maximum speed of 4.3 miles per second. The goal size of the space plane is a 100-passenger vehicle, with the passenger compartment capable of ejection and flight on its own as an emergency measure. The reusable booster stage could also be used to ferry other vehicles to space, including launch systems for satellites to be placed in higher orbit.

The development of a flying prototype of the SpaceLiner could cost as much as $33 billion and would require multiple design reviews “before you build the first hardware in 2030,” Sippel said. Testing would involve up to six prototype vehicles, and actual commercial service wouldn’t begin until 2040. So please, don’t start calling Lufthansa to book a flight.


The Pope’s Lead Astronomer Says Aliens Exist But They Probably Aren’t Catholics

BY TRACE WILLIAM COWEN

Image result for Are will alone

Perhaps the biggest component of the “Are we alone in the universe?” debate, for some, is the resulting dismantling of religious institutions here on Earth following inarguable proof that such institutions are decidedly anti-universe. For the religiously inclined, the question arises: Would inhabitants of another planet, likely within another universe entirely, even have knowledge of the respective god of one respective religion or another? The answer, of course, is a relatively firm “No.” Now, just three short centuries after the Catholic Church violently condemned Galileo for suggesting that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, the Vatican Powers That Be are joining the realistic side of this debate.

Following NASA’s announcement of a possible Earth-like sister planet, Father José Gabriel Funes once again expressed his updated thoughts on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life,” says Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. “[Though] I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr Spock.” When pressed about the inherent contradictions of such an expression from a person of such devout Christian faith, Funes gives an admirably forthright response. “The Bible is not a scientific book. If we look for scientific responses to our questions in the Bible, we are making a mistake.”

Funes also believes, in a humorous act of deflection, that this theoretical extraterrestrial life likely aren’t Catholics, wouldn’t have the slightest clue as to who Jesus is, and most definitely haven’t experienced similar events of supposed religious importance. “The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” offers Funes. “The Incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity of the universe.” That’s perfect, isn’t it? A powerful religious figure admits to the increasing likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (i.e. aliens), but in the same breath reinforces the outmoded belief that humans are the center of everything.

Sorry, aliens. Please don’t visit us until we have our shit together.

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Inflatable space elevator gets a lift

Top floor, please.Thoth Technologies

Technically speaking, getting to space hasn’t become any easier over the past half century or so. It still requires using huge rockets to create a massive enough amount of force to push a payload beyond the grip of Earth’s gravity.

Enter the concept of the space elevator, which uses much simpler gravity-defying technologies to access space.

So far, most space elevator concepts have been the stuff of sci-fi, and any plans to actually build one have remained on the rather distant horizon. But “push button” access to space took a step toward reality in late July when the US Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to a Canadian company for its invention of an inflatable space elevator tower.

Thoth Technology, based in Pembroke, Ontario, devised a tower design using pressurized segments that reach up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) into the stratosphere where a platform could be constructed for purposes of communications, tourism or as a launch platform for reaching space. Unlike blasting off from near sea level, as most space launches do now, getting into orbit or beyond from the top of a space elevator more than 20 times taller than the highest structures on Earth would be more like an aircraft takeoff.

“Astronauts would ascend to 20 km by electrical elevator. From the top of the tower, space planes will launch in a single stage to orbit, returning to the top of the tower for refueling and re- flight,” Brendan Quine, the inventor, said in a statement.

This elevator is far less ambitious than others we’ve reported on like plans from Japan’s Obayashi Corporation, which hopes to extend a space  elevator quarter of the way to the moon by 2050.

The company sees space elevators leading to a new era of space travel when paired with other new technologies like self-landing rockets of the kind that SpaceX is working on.

Getting to that point will involve some new innovations that this patent doesn’t really address, however. The invention here is focused on the construction of the tower itself, but how to construct and maintain a strong, reliable elevator cable 12 miles long is the real challenge in the space elevator universe. In fact, it’s the focus of a space elevator conference taking place later this month.

The patent does suggest “the mechanism for elevating and lowering cars may be provided by frictional contact, at least one winch mechanism located along the length of the elevator core structure, or by inductive means” but each of those mechanisms would still need to be invented or customized to this design.

For now, we’re stuck having to ride fire to space, but the “slow space” movement is well under way and the invention of the new genre of space elevator music can’t be far behind.

                                                    Image result for space elevator

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It’s a new space race with China to the Moon and Mars

 By Richard Sammon,

Courtesy NASA

 

Concept rendering of the Orion, NASA’s spacecraft for deep-space exploration.

A new space race looms on the horizon.

The goal: Putting men on the moon again (and maybe women this time, too), echoing the expensive and exhilarating missions that led to Neil Armstrong’s historic step onto the lunar surface in 1969.

A return to the moon seems likely sometime late in the 2020s – more than 50 years after the first trip there. It would be followed, sometime in the 2030s, by a manned flight to Mars, using a lunar base as a departure point.

A U.S.-led team will reach the moon first, just as Americans outpaced the Soviets last time. But China will be nipping at NASA’s heels, poised to win the new race if budget cuts or problems – either political or scientific – disrupt America’s timetable.
So why is a costly return to space under consideration even as many members of Congress are looking to cut federal spending and trim the budget deficit? One factor to weigh is that NASA’s budget won’t be much different than it is now, about $18 billion a year. Private companies will kick in billions more, as will countries eager to partner with the U.S.

Another consideration: There is vast potential for scientific gains in health care, technology and telecommunications. Medical experiments, a boon for universities and private companies that partner with NASA, will help astronauts deal with the effects of prolonged weightlessness. Here on Earth, those studies may lead to advances in treating bone and muscle problems in older people.

And there’s a good chance that space missions will lead to the creation of new products that will find uses in daily life. The first era of space exploration brought a number of advances that are now taken for granted: Memory foam for mattresses and pillows. Cordless power tools. Scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses. Even freeze-dried food.

The renewed interest in space travel will also create a string of business opportunities for companies of all sizes. At one end of the scale, SpaceX is getting $1.6 billion to develop and fly rockets. The company, just one of the joint ventures pushed by NASA’s brass, has had a mixed track record so far.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and others will work on lucrative contracts for space vehicles to carry humans and cargo, and will provide other major components and gear. While those giant firms will land much of the space program’s main work, the contracts will require countless subcontractors to provide parts and perform some tasks.

Nearly every state will benefit to a degree, though the bulk of the work will be in states with existing space industry ties: Florida and Texas, of course, but also Alabama, California, Maryland and Virginia.

 

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NASA’s Mission to Europa

Let's Talk About NASA's Mission to Europa

The search for life in the Solar System is about the hunt for water. Wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. I’m talking everywhere. In the most briny, salty pools in Antarctica, in the hottest hot springs in Yellowstone, under glaciers, and kilometers deep underground.

So we go searching for liquid water in the Solar System.

You might be surprised to learn that Jupiter’s moon Europa has the most water in the entire Solar System. If you took all the water on Earth, collected it into a big sphere, it would measure almost 1,400 kilometers across.

Europa’s water would measure nearly 1,800 kilometers.All that water exists in a layer around Europa, encased in a layer of ice. How thick? We don’t know.

Is there life down there? We don’t know. You can say there might be, and it wouldn’t be untrue. However, if you say there isn’t, that’s way less interesting for clickbait purposes. Whenever we don’t know the answers to fundamental and intriguing questions like that, it’s time to send a mission.

Good news! An actual mission to Europa is in the works right now. In 2015, NASA approved the development of an orbiter mission to Europa. If all goes well, and nothing gets cancelled, a spacecraft will launch in the 2020s, carrying 9 instruments to Europa. Most will be familiar cameras, mass spectrometers, and the like, to study the surface of Europa to a high level of resolution. Over the course of 45 flybys, the spacecraft will get down as close as 25 kilometers and capture it with incredible resolution.

Perhaps the most exciting, and controversial instrument on board the new Europa Orbiter mission will be its ice-penetrating radar. Mission planners battled over installing a radar this sophisticated, as it will be an enormous drain on the orbiter’s power.

This for us is incredibly exciting. It will allow the spacecraft to map out the depth and thickness of Europa’s icy exterior. Is it thick or thin? Are there pockets of water trapped just below the surface, or is it tough shell that goes on for dozens of kilometers?

The worst case scenario is that the shell goes thicker than the radar can reach, and we won’t even know how far it goes.

Whatever happens, the Europa orbiter will be a boon to science, answer outstanding questions about the moon and the chances of finding life there.

We’re just getting started. What we really want to send is a lander. Because of the intense radiation from Jupiter, the Sun, and space itself, the surface of the ice on Europa would be sterilized. But dig down a few centimeters and you might find life that’s protected from the radiation.

A future Europa lander might be equipped with a heated drill attached to a tether. The lander would be have with a heat-generated radioisotope thermoelectric generator, like most of NASA’s big, outer Solar System spacecraft.

But in addition to using it for electricity, it’ll use the raw heat to help a tethered drill to grind through the ice a few meters and sample what’s down there.

Drilling more than a few meters is probably the stuff of science fiction. Russian scientists in Antarctica drilled for almost two decades to get through 4,000 meters of ice above Lake Vostok. Imagine trying to get through 100 kilometers of the stuff, on a distant world, with a robot.

But, since I’ve talked about moving the Sun, and terraforming the Moon, maybe I shouldn’t put any bounds on my imagination. Nuclear-powered Europa submarines will get us swimming with the singing Europan space whales in no time.

Europa is the best place to search the Solar System for life, and I’m excited to see what the upcoming Europa Orbiter mission turns up. And I’m even more excited about the possibility of any future lander missions.

Fraser Cain – Universe Today

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3D Printers to Revolutionise Space Travel Within Two Year

3D printing
Astronaut Robert L. Satcher Jr. works outside the International Space Station in 2009. NASA hopes that 3D printing will allow astronauts to set up permanent habitats in the future. NASA/HANDOUT/REUTERS

NASA are aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years, allowing astronauts to set up permanent habitats on other planets and even print their own food.

In an interview with Newsweek, NASA’s 3D printing chief Niki Werkheiser says the technology will revolutionize space travel by allowing astronauts to be away from year for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.

Current costs for space transportation are $10,000 per pound of mass. The development therefore has the potential to save millions of dollars as astronauts can travel light and print essentials on demand whilst in space.

NASA is currently developing its largest rocket yet, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is due to make its first test flight in 2017 and Werkheiser says her team are working to get a 3D printer on-board.

So far, Werkheiser’s team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama have produced several rocket components and a small wrench with the technology and yesterday the team announced the first successful print of a copper engine part for rockets.

However, they are working on much more exciting projects, including printing parts for a small shelter using substitutes for Martian and lunar sand – the theory being that astronauts could one day use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces.

“The bottom line is being able to print anything you need in orbit. When we live on the ground, we don’t think much about running to Home Depot if something breaks but when you’re in space, even tiny things make a difference,” says Werkheiser.

The space agency is also funding a Texas-based company which is researching printing food, and has already produced prototype results in the form of printed pizza.

Other projects include developing a recycler which breaks down food wrappers into filament which the printer could convert into useful tools like circuit boards and batteries.

Werkheiser is optimistic that commercial applications of the technology means 3D printing in space will not be a thing of the future for long.

3D products are already being touted as offering a solution to homelessness and a means of creating human organs for those in need of transplants.

“The beautiful thing about 3D printing is that you’re going to see a pretty rapid evolution of commercial development. It’s going to happen,” says Werkheiser.

NASA has spent some $3m on the In-Space Manufacturing project which Werkheiser heads up.

The prototype 3D printer used on the International Space Station is the size of a small microwave and prints objects the size of an iPhone 6.

It produces objects by a process known as additive construction, using plastic filament as ink and constructing objects by a layering technique. Instructions are uplinked to the printer from ground control via email.

Werkheiser’s team are working on introducing metal filament to allow the printer to produce sturdier tools.

However, they are still working to overcome certain challenges posed by manufacturing in microgravity – for example, whether the layers of heated plastic form strong bonds when layered on top of each other in the absence of gravity.

Nevertheless, Werkheiser believes the technology will provide the key to allowing astronauts to live in space with the same freedom as on earth.

“This suite of capabilities will enable us to operate and live in space as we do on the ground. You need to get that autonomy in space and this is the secret sauce to getting there.”