First contact: how we’ll get the news that we found aliens

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Cathal O’Connell explains the challenges that will face scientists when they break the biggest news story in history.

However unlikely contact with aliens may be, scientists are thinking about how they would break the news to a nervous planet.CREDIT: AARON FOSTER/GETTY IMAGES

Detecting a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence would be life changing for everyone on Earth – the biggest news story in history – and could potentially be dangerous, especially if badly handled.

Writing in the journal Acta Astronautica, scientists at the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institute describe a protocol for how to break it to the world that we’re not alone in the Universe – without causing global mayhem.

Rather than a conspiracy of government cover-ups so beloved of sci-fi writes, the study strongly recommends openness as the key to having a “sane global conversation” about the discovery of ET.

Nobody knows how the world would react to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. All we have to go on are the bizarre occurrences where the public thought they were hearing such news.

In 1938 Orson Welles’ radio-play based on HG Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds caused widespread panic in the United States (although the scale of that panic was likely exaggerated). In 1949, a Spanish language version of the same program incited rioting in Ecuador, leading to at least seven deaths, and possibly as many as 20.

Then there’s the risk of the media misreporting or exaggerating the importance of a tentative signal. In October 2015, for example, when a newly discovered extrasolar planet, KIC 8462852, was discovered to show a periodic dip in brightness, the mainstream media latched on to the most speculative, and least likely, explanation – namely that an “alien megastructure” was passing in front of its star. (The periodic dimming is more likely caused by a cloud of comets passing by.)

As a result of these excesses, scientists have been worried about how to break SETI news for decades.

In 1989, the International Academy of Astronautics drew up a set of guidelines for releasing information about a potential alien signal. But that was before the internet and social media transformed the way we consume news stories.

Now, Duncan Forgan and Alexander Scholz, from the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland, have prepared an updated protocol for how scientists should navigate the “unprecedented media onslaught”.

First, Forgan and Scholz advise, all scientists performing a SETI experiment should clearly outline their search methodology as well as define what makes a “discovery”, before the search even begins. This information should be published in a format the media can easily access, such as a blog post.

Then if a signal is detected, the discoverers should not to try to keep it under wraps – the potential fall-out from a leak would be too damaging. Much better to announce a tentative detection, but be clear that it must be assumed to be of natural or manmade origin until proved otherwise.

The scientists should submit their findings to a peer-reviewed journal, while simultaneously uploading all data so it can be pored over by other scientists – and potential known sources ruled out.

The problem is these verifications can take a long time. The best case-study is the so-called “Wow” signal, detected in 1977. That signal was exactly what SETI scientists had been looking for – being at the right frequency to hold an interstellar conversation, and being of unprecedented strength – and is still unexplained almost 39 years later. (Although in early 2016, a study published by the Washington Academy of Sciences suggested that comets could emit such a signal, and identified two comets that were in the right place at the right time in 1977. Future measurements of radio emission by comets should hopefully clear this up.)

In the case where the detection cannot be confirmed, say Forgan and Scholz, the SETI scientists should publish an announcement saying so.

In the case of the detection is confirmed, however, the SETI scientists should become deeply involved in the global conversation by engaging across as many social media platforms as possible – a role they would likely assume for the rest of their lives. They should also be prepared for the downsides of newfound fame – such as cyber attacks.

The latest polls (conducted in Germany, the UK and US last September) show that most people in developed countries believe intelligent aliens exist somewhere in the Universe. But that doesn’t mean we’re ready for a “first contact” event.

However unlikely such a discovery is, a signal from an alien intelligence would be the most momentous discovery the human species is ever likely to make. It’s worth a little thinking ahead.

Cassini spacecraft probes methane-filled sea on Titan

Emilee Speck

Oceanographers may need to study alien worlds sooner than you think.

Observations by NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft indicate Saturn’s moon Titan is more Earth-like with its dense atmosphere, lake-filled surface and possible wetlands.

Other than our home planet Titan is the only known world in the solar system with stable liquid on its surface, according to NASA.

Since 2004, Cassini has found more than 620,000 square miles of Titan’s surface covered in liquid, about two percent of its globe. Planetary scientists have theorized about what elements fill Titan’s liquid bodies, but thanks to Cassini they now have answers

A new study using Cassini’s radar instrument to study Titan’s second largest sea, known as Ligeia Mare, between 2007 and 2015 reveals it’s a filled with methane.

The study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets confirms what planetary scientists have thought about Titan’s seas for some time.

Using Cassini’s radar instrument to detect echoes from the seafloor of Ligeia Mare scientists used the depth-sounding information to observe temperatures, which helped give clues to their composition, according to the news release.

“Before Cassini, we expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly made up of ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane,” said Alice Le Gall, a Cassini radar team member and lead author of the new study.

Ligeia Mare is the about the size of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together, according to NASA and from Cassini’s flybys scientists were able to determine the sea is 525 feet deep in some areas.

All of Titan’s seas are named for mythical sea creatures. The largest sea, Kraken Mare is about 680 miles long.

Another similarity between our home planet and Titan is they both have nitrogen atmospheres, but Titan is lacking much oxygen. Titan’s atmosphere is mostly methane with trace amounts of ethane and because of the distance from the sun, meaning cold temperatures, the methane and ethane remain in liquid form instead of escaping, according to NASA.

Le Gall offered a few possibilities of how Ligeria Mare became mostly methane filled, instead of ethane as Cassini’s team originally thought.

“Either Ligeia Mare is replenished by fresh methane rainfall, or something is removing ethane from it,” said Le Gall. “It is possible that the ethane ends up in the undersea crust, or that it somehow flows into the adjacent sea, Kraken Mare, but that will require further investigation.”

The study also found Ligeia Mare’s shoreline may warm quicker than in the sea, similar to a beach on Earth.

“It’s a marvelous feat of exploration that we’re doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon,” said Steve Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team. “Titan just won’t stop surprising us.”

 

 

Copyright © 2016, Orlando Sentinel

 

Astronauts Successfully Attach Inflatable Room to Space Station

ALYSSA NEWCOMB

Inflatable room attached to space station

A giant addition that one day may be used to support life on Mars has been deployed and is set to undergo a two-year test.It will be expanded to 5 times its size »

 

 

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Astronomers spot a never-before-seen type of white dwarf star

Its discovery could change our understanding of star death

By Loren Grush

For the first time ever, researchers have spotted a white dwarf surrounded by an atmosphere of mostly oxygen. A star of this kind, a super-dense dead star with an oxygen atmosphere, had never been seen before, though astronomers had speculated that one might exist. Such a unique finding could change how we think about the evolution of stars and what happens when these stellar objects die.

“IT WAS COMPLETELY NOT EXPECTED.”

To find this unique zombie star, an international team of researchers looked through data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey — a project that measures the colored lines of light coming off of objects throughout the universe. These lines, called spectral lines, can tell astronomers what types of elements make up a star’s atmosphere. Using this data, the researchers found that one particular white dwarf, with the eloquent name ­­SDSS J124043.01+671034.68, didn’t have any hydrogen or helium in its atmosphere; its surrounding air was instead almost pure oxygen.

“It was completely not expected for a star with a low mass like our star,” said study author Kepler Oliveira, an astronomer at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.


An image of SDSS J124043.01+671034.68. (Kepler Oliveira)

The finding is so surprising because it doesn’t quite fit with our current understanding of what stars look like when they die. Typically, when a star like our Sun runs out of fuel, it starts collapsing. As the star becomes more compact, it heats up, causing its outer layers to expand more than 100 times the star’s original size. Eventually those outer layers are lost and only the core of the star remains — the faint white dwarf.

Most of the star’s hydrogen and helium get lost with those outer layers, but a little bit of them are left over in the white dwarf’s atmosphere. The hydrogen and helium float to the top of the star’s surface, because they’re relatively light; the heavier elements, like oxygen and carbon, remain below.

“It’s the same reason that panning for gold works,” said Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomy graduate student at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study. “If you have gold and sediments in water, the gold is heavier so it’ll sink to the bottom, but the sediments are lighter, so they’ll stay at the top.”

SOME KIND OF EVENT CAUSED THE HYDROGEN AND HELIUM TO DISAPPEAR

The fact that no hydrogen and helium are seen in the atmosphere of the white dwarf in question is puzzling. It means some kind of event has caused the two elements to disappear, making oxygen the lightest element in the star’s atmosphere. But the researchers aren’t sure what kind of event that was, as they’ve never considered it before. “We don’t make models of things we don’t know exist,” Oliveira said. “But now that we know this star exists, we have to calculate the model for it.”

One possible explanation for the lack of helium and hydrogen is that the star experienced a giant thermal pulse when the object was a red giant, and that intense explosion stripped away all the lighter elements. Another possible scenario is that the star was actually part of a binary system. The stars may have merged together, causing an explosion that ejected the hydrogen and helium. These ideas are only loose theories, though. “We don’t have a calculation that shows [a binary merger] happened, but that’s the only explanation that I can think of,” Oliveira said. “It must have come from a binary system.”

The researchers will work to figure out what happened to this star, but in the meantime, the white dwarf’s discovery is a significant find for the astronomy community. “It’s a new class of star,” said Vanderburg. “We don’t understand how it formed, but this is the kind of thing that pushes our field forward, and who knows where it will take us.”

 

This gun looks exactly like a smartphone

‘In its locked position it will be virtually undetectable because it hides in plain sight.’
MarketWatch photo illustration/Ideal Conceal, Everett Collection

MarketWatch photo illustration/Ideal Conceal, Everett Collection

By
SHAWN
LANGLOIS
SOCIAL-MEDIA EDITOR

Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just… carrying an iPhone?

The Ideal Conceal handgun has made waves for what its maker calls an “ingenious” design that looks exactly like a smartphone when in the “locked” position.

Ideal Conceal says on its website that, indeed, hardly anybody will notice it: “Smartphones are EVERYWHERE, so your new pistol will easily blend in with today’s environment. In its locked position it will be virtually undetectable because it hides in plain sight.”

 


Ideal Conceal
The Ideal Conceal weapon is a .380-caliber derringer. Two bullets in two barrels. While the gun is still patent-pending, It’s expected to be available by mid-2016 for $395 each.

“From soccer moms to professionals of every type, this gun allows you the option of not being a victim,” the company says. “Most threats will occur in less than a 30’ range. Ease and speed of deployment will mean the difference in the outcome. With the Ideal Conceal pistol you can be quick on the draw stopping a threat effectively and immediately.”

Ideal Conceal looks to be tapping into the gun market at an opportune time. Earlier this month, firearms giant Smith & Wesson SWHC, -0.62% rode a groundswell of demand to surprisingly strong quarterly results. The stock has more than doubled in the past year, as uncertainty over gun laws and the rising threat of terrorism have caused customers to load up.

Not everyone on social media reacted to the gun in the way Ideal Conceal may have hoped:

 

 

 

COMET CREATED CHAOS IN MARS’ MAGNETIC FIELD

by Evan Gough

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The image was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In the Autumn of 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived at Mars and entered into orbit. MAVEN wasn’t the only visitor to arrive at Mars at that time though, as comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) also showed up at Mars. Most of MAVEN’s instruments were shut down to protect sensitive electronics from Siding Spring’s magnetic field. But the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft was left on, which gave MAVEN a great view of the interaction between the planet and the comet.

Unlike Earth, which has a powerful magnetosphere created by its rotating metal core, Mars’ magnetosphere is created by plasma in its upper atmosphere, and is not very powerful. (Mars may have had a rotating metal core in the past, and a stronger magnetosphere because of it, but that’s beside the point.) Comet Siding Spring is small, with its nucleus being only about one half a kilometer. But its magnetosphere is situated in its coma, the long ‘tail’ of the comet that stretches out for a million kilometers.

When Siding Spring approached Mars, it came to within 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of the planet. But the comet’s coma nearly touched the surface of the planet, and during that hours-long encounter, the magnetic field from the comet created havoc with Mars’ magnetic field. And MAVEN’s magnetometer captured the event.

MAVEN was in position to capture the close encounter between Mars and comet Siding Spring. Image: NASA/Goddard.

Jared Espley is a member of the MAVEN team at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said of the Mars/Siding Spring event, “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

Espley and his colleagues describe the event as a tide that washed over the Martian magnetosphere. Comet Siding Spring’s tail has a magnetosphere due to its interactions with the solar wind. As the comet is heated by the sun, plasma is generated, which interacts in turn with the solar wind, creating a magnetosphere. And like a tide, the effects were subtle at first, and the event played out over several hours as the comet passed by the planet.

Siding Spring’s magnetic tide had only a subtle effect on Mars at first. Normally, Mars’ magnetosphere is situated evenly around the planet, but as the comet got closer, some parts of the planet’s magnetosphere began to realign themselves. Eventually the effect was so powerful that the field was thrown into chaos, like a flag flapping every which way in a powerful wind. It took Mars a while to recover from this encounter as the field took several hours to recover.

MAVEN’s task is to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun’s solar wind and Mars. So being able to witness the effect that Siding Spring had on Mars is an added bonus. Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, is one of MAVEN’s principal investigators. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other,” said Jakosky, “we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

Astronomers say they’ve found the biggest structure in the universe and they named it the BOSS

The BOSS is big. Really big. Yuuuuuge.

So big that when a star is born on one side of the BOSS, it takes a billion years for the light to reach the other side.

So big that comparing the BOSS to the next biggest thing like it is like comparing Andre the Giant to your 3-year-old nephew.

What is the BOSS? It’s a wall. A Great Wall. It makes other walls — you know which ones — look like, well, nothing, because the BOSS Great Wall is an immense complex comprising more than 800 galaxies and weighing 10,000 times as much as the Milky Way and other walls are just a measly pile of rocks on an insignificant planet in a remote part of space.

 

Anyway, scientists working for the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey— the international galaxy-mapping effort from which the BOSS gets its truly spectacular acronym — say that the newly discovered cosmic feature is the largest structure in the universe. Or at least, as much of the universe as they’ve mapped so far.

In a study published in the newest issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, the scientists describe the BOSS Great Wall (BGW) as an enormous collection of galaxies more than one billion light-years across.

“It was so much bigger than anything else in this volume,” Heidi Lietzen of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics, a lead author on the study, told the New Scientist.

“Walls” like the BGW are part of the underlying structure of the universe. Most of space is a vast empty void, and all the stuff that astronomers look for — stars, planets, the galaxies they constitute — is threaded through that nothingness. Pulled together by gravity, galaxies coalesce into clusters, which in turn form larger structures called superclusters, as explained by PBS. Those are then corralled into “walls” — the coronary arteries of this giant system of matter, and the biggest things in space.

Researchers for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (the BOSS survey is one of its projects) have been trying to map that web in order to better understand the universe’s history, size and speed of expansion. Using a dedicated telescope located in the remote desert scrubland of Sunspot, N.M., they scan huge swaths of the sky for distant galaxies, brilliant quasars and other celestial objects.

In the process, they’ve found some pretty enormous things. Like the “Sloan Great Wall,” which Lietzen and her co-authors say is the closest system of superclusters comparable to the BGW.

But even that is dwarfed by the Sloan survey’s newest find. The BOSS Great Wall has ten times the volume of the Sloan wall and is almost 70 percent larger in diameter. It comprises four superclusters containing 830 galaxies, and it looms in space some 5 billion light-years away from Earth. (For what it’s worth, the biggest thing in our neck of the woods, the Laniakea supercluster that includes our own Milky Way galaxy, is less than half the size of the BGW.)

“I don’t entirely understand why they are connecting all of these features together to call them a single structure,” Allison Coil, an astrophysicist at the University of California at San Diego, told the New Scientist. “There are clearly kinks and bends in this structure that don’t exist, for example, in the Sloan Great Wall.”

But size isn’t really the point, Smithsonian Magazine noted. The discovery of the BOSS Great Wall is just one part of a larger survey that will — astronomers hope — reveal not just what the universe looks like, but how it’s evolved and how it continues to change.

Which is a very nice sentiment. But the BOSS Great Wall is still biggest. And you know what that makes it.

A winner.

Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.

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NASA Plans to Light a Fire Inside a Spacecraft, Then Watch What Happens

Relax, it’s being done for science.

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A flame in space, as photographed during a BASS (Burning and Suppression of Solids) experiment. (NASA)

AIRSPACEMAG.COM

For the past couple of weeks, on and off, astronaut Tim Kopra has been playing with fire on the International Space Station—part of an experiment called Burning and Suppression of Solids—Milliken (BASS-M), to test how flame-retardant cotton fabrics burn in microgravity.

Why? Because fire behaves differently in space than it does on Earth. In normal gravity, hot gas rises, drawing in cool, fresh air at the base of the flame. That’s what gives flames their familiar teardrop shape. In microgravity, hot gas doesn’t rise, so flames tend to be wider, shorter, and rounder than on Earth. As a result, flames in space radiate heat differently than they do on Earth, which in turn affects how fires spread. That means materials may be more or less flammable in orbit than they are on Earth, even with the same mix of atmospheric gases.

When it comes to flammability tests, size matters. On Earth, NASA uses 5 cm by 25 cm samples of flammable material. But pieces that big aren’t allowed on the station (with some exceptions when there is no practical alternative, such as the crew’s clothing). So experiments like BASS-M (which follows up on earlier BASS combustion experiments carried out on the station from 2011 to 2013) make do with small samples, about one centimeter by three centimeters.

“The problem with small samples is that a lot of aspects of the fire don’t scale linearly, so you can’t look at a tiny, one-centimeter fire and extrapolate that to one that’s a foot wide or something,” said David Urban, a combustion researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Scientists would like to know exactly how large-scale fires would grow and spread in microgravity, but it’s too dangerous to conduct that kind of experiment on a spacecraft with astronauts on board. Instead, safety engineers have to rely mostly on models based on how flames spread in Earth’s gravity, and on a few small combustion experiments in space.

Sometimes you just need a bigger fire. So Urban and co-investigator Gary Ruff designed the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), a series of six tests that will ignite and study contained fires aboard returning Cygnus cargo ships (the next of which is scheduled to depart the station on Friday). When they leave the ISS, the Cygnus ships contain only trash, and they burn up during re-entry. They’re expendable, which makes them the perfect place to set a fire.

When the next Cygnus (number OA-6) launches on March 20, it will carry, along with new supplies for the station,  the experimental hardware for Saffire-I. A metal box with fans at either end houses a 0.4- by 0.94-meter sheet of SIBAL cloth, a blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent fiberglass. Cotton is used in crew clothing, towels, and other cloth items aboard the station, and the fiberglass blend keeps the sample material from ripping and tearing as it burns. The fans will regulate airflow into and out of the fire.

After Cygnus detaches from the station in mid-May, a ground team will turn on power to the Saffire hardware and activate an electronic igniter at one corner of the SIBAL fabric. As the sample burns, instruments will measure temperature, pressure, and concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide near the fire. Video cameras will record the shape, growth, and spread of the flames.

A Cygnus cargo vehicle on its way up to the space station last December. This one comes home on Friday.

A Cygnus cargo vehicle on its way up to the space station last December. This one comes home on Friday. (NASA)

The fire should consume the sample fabric and burn itself out in about two hours, but Cygnus will spend another four days in orbit, downlinking to stations on Earth so the researchers can retrieve Saffire’s experimental data before the resupply ship re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and breaks up over the Pacific.

Saffire-II is scheduled to launch on OA-7 in October. With nine smaller samples—including more SIBAL cloth, Nomex, and plexiglass—it will replicate the flammability tests that NASA conducts on Earth. That should help researchers determine how well those tests predict the materials’ flammability in microgravity.

In 2017, Saffire-III will repeat Saffire-I’s large-scale fire, but this time with a stronger airflow. Since airflow is the main factor that influences the size of flames in space, researchers expect to see larger flames in Saffire-III.

The recent BASS-M experiments have helped lay the groundwork for these first three fire experiments, just as they will prepare the way for Saffire-IV through Saffire-VI. These later missions will study how heat and pressure from large fires could affect the rest of the spacecraft cabin, and will give NASA a chance to demonstrate fire suppression technologies that it has spent the last several years developing.

 


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A radical new study has pin pointed the most compelling locations where we could soon discover intelligent aliens

Jessica Orwig,Business Insider

With Mars in Mind, Lockheed Martin Designs Human Habitat to Orbit Moon

By

Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon

Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

As the idea of a human mission to Mars leaps from the pages of science fictionliterature (or off the silver screen) and into reality, NASA is taking a serious look at how astronauts will live, work and survive during the long journey to the red planet.

The federal space agency and its manufacturing partner Lockheed Martin have recently crossed a major milestone in preparation to land the first humans on Marsby completing the pressure module or “backbone” of the vehicle that will take them there—the Orion Crew Module. This spacecraft will launch atop the Space Launch System—the most powerful rocket ever built—and sustain a crew for 21 days as they travel into deep space.

It takes a lot longer than three weeks to get to our neighboring planet so where will astronauts live and work during the rest of the trek through the solar system?Lockheed Martin is in the early stages of providing an answer.

As part of NASA’s NextStep habitat study that is currently underway, Lockheed is one of the four companies conceptualizing an Exploration Augmentation Module or “outpost” that will mate with Orion and sustain a crew for up to 60 days during the first deep space missions leading up to Mars. These outings will see humans travel beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972 and head toward a destination in cislunar space—a distant orbit around the Moon.

Targeted for the mid 2020s, these exploration missions will see NASA attempt to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit and eventually study that captured asteroid by rendezvousing with it. A habitat will provide a temporary home for astronauts during these endeavors and will enable them to forge the skills and push the innovations of long-duration spaceflight required to ensure a safe trip for a Mars-bound crew.

Currently, the International Space Station serves as the only scientific laboratory and permanent human outpost in low-Earth orbit. A habitat orbiting the Moon would operate very differently. “The cislunar outpost is actually what we call crew-tended. Crew will not be there year-round like they are on the ISS,” Lockheed Martin’s space exploration architect Josh Hopkins told the Observer. “They will visit for a mission-a-year and that mission could be 30-60 days long.”

One of the major hurdles for a manned mission to Mars is human exposure to space radiation, and this issue will be tackled in cislunar space. The habitat’s initial 60-day limit was established by Lockheed’s team to ensure a safe stay for the crew given this element of radiation. Solar storms and the continuous exposure to cosmic rays are difficult to shield from, but it does become more manageable by limiting the amount of time astronauts spend in deep space. “As we build more knowledge of the biomedical effects and how to protect astronauts, we can start gradually doing longer and longer missions,” explained Hopkins.

As for the random bursts of radiation from a solar storm that could occur, the crew would be able to use the advanced built-in capabilities of Orion, which can act as a storm shelter. In the crew module, the closer an astronaut is to the heat shield, the more protection they have. In order to leverage this capability, they must remove supplies from “locker” spaces behind their seats and actually climb inside.

Protecting humans from radiation on Earth requires shielding from heavy elements like lead but with low-dosage space radiation, lighter materials can do the job. For this reason, Lockheed’s designers are mindful about the placement of consumables and waste products inside the habitat due to these items being a potential source of protection. “What we want are light elements. So things like water, food and plastics tend to be fairly good shielding,” said Hopkins. “We can adjust the locations and positioning of these things we’re going to have in a way that maximizes the amount of protection they give us.”

Along with acting as an emergency radiation storm shelter for the crew, Orion can also provide power, temperature control, and can even recycle air—features than enable a habitat to be low-maintenance and cost-effective.

The crew vehicle can use its propulsion system to provide maneuvering capability for the outpost, but Lockheed’s concept will include on-board, independent propulsion. “You don’t want to return to a habitat that’s tumbling because it wasn’t able to maintain its position in orbit,” said William Pratt, Lockheed’s NextSTEP study manager. “There will be a propulsion stage attached to the habitat and the capability to provide a small amount of power you’ll need when Orion is not there.”

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.(Image: Lockheed Martin)

A human habitat or any spacecraft far from Earth will require some degree of autonomy, and this is a specialty for Lockheed Martin’s engineers. Unmanned probes like the MAVEN and the Juno spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter this summer were both manufactured by Lockheed with autonomous capability. “We feel that’s something we can really bring to a cislunar habitat,” Pratt said. “Our thinking is more about autonomy and giving the crew more autonomy to handle things as they come up at the outpost.”

The primary reason for spacecraft autonomy is communication—or lack thereof. On the long journey to Mars, which could see astronauts spend at least two years aboard a habitat, delays in communication with Earth-based mission control will certainly occur. This could pose a problem when troubleshooting vehicle sub-systems that include life support and oxygen supply.

A major concerned for Lockheed is the long passage of time between the crew’s training and the moment a serious issue does come up during a mission—which could be a few years later. “They may not remember the training. Having the right kind of on-board documentation and flight computer to be able to provide the astronauts the information they need when they need it, is important,” Pratt said. “Not just having the alarm go off but having the alarm go off and the PDF file of the manual come up at the same time. That’s really useful in helping the crew understand how to operate their own vehicle.”

Even though Lockheed Martin’s early habitat concept will service exploration missions near the Moon, the company is always thinking about the manned mission to Mars, which will require a far more advanced successor to their current designs. Engineers will need to go through a few iterations of the concept after the health effects of long-duration human spaceflight are known and as new technology is developed. This is the basis that NASA created NextSTEP on.

The federal space agency is looking for a modular habitat that can grow, evolve and be added to. “New modules are built upon the lessons of the previous modules,” Hopkins said.