Our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, is just four light-years from Earth, and while that’s pretty close in the grand scheme of things, we can’t just pop over to borrow some milk.With our current technology, the journey would take tens of thousands of years, but there are plans for tiny unmanned probes that could trek there in as little as 20 years.
As far as universal limits go, the speed of light gets all the glory. But did you know there is a different speed limit for particles? It’s called the GZK limit, and some people think it has already been exceeded. Which has some pretty weird implications for the laws of the universe.
We know that the ultimate speed limit of the universe, the limit that nothing can exceed, is the speed of light. Nothing gets around faster than a photon. But the universe is not exclusively made up of photons. It is also made up of physical particles. Of course, as Einstein proved, these particles can be equivalent to photons. The equation E = mc2 showed us that mass can change into energy and energy into mass the same way that water can be poured from one cup to another — although with considerably more difficulty. While energy is tough to get a hold on, mass is notoriously sluggish. No matter how little the quantity of mass we try to accelerate, we can never quite get it up to the speed of light.
Nasa’s advanced ion propulsion rocket engine has run continuously for over five and a half years, setting a new world record.
This makes it the longest test duration any kind of space propulsion system demonstration project ever.
The solar-electric propulsion thruster could be used in a wide range of science missions including intriguing journeys into deep space.
The thruster is part of the space agency’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project at its Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The project aims to develop a next-generation electric propulsion system, including power processing, propellant management and other components.
Despite setting a new record by operating for more than 48,000 hours, the long-running test will be shut down.
Michael J. Patterson, principal investigator for NEXT at Glenn, said: ‘We will voluntarily terminate this test at the end of this month, with the thruster fully operational.
‘Life and performance have exceeded the requirements for any anticipated science mission.’
The efficient engine is perfect for deep space missions. It is a type of solar-electric propulsion in which thruster systems use the electricity generated by the spacecraft’s solar panels to accelerate the xenon propellant to speeds of up to 90,000 mph.
This provides a dramatic improvement in performance compared to conventional chemical rocket engines.
HOW THE ROCKET WORKS
- Nasa’s advanced ion propulsion system runs on the electricity generated by the spacecraft’s solar panels
- It uses the power to accelerate xenon propellant to speeds of up to 90,000 mph
- The engine consumed about 870 kilograms of xenon propellant dusting its 48,000 hour test
- It is more efficient than conventional chemical rocket engines
During the endurance test, which was carried out in a high vacuum test chamber at Glenn Research Center, the engine consumed about 870 kilograms of xenon propellant.
While this sounds like a lot, it provides an amount of total impulse (a measure of the maximum momentum that an engine and fuel can move a vehicle) that would take more than 10,000 kilograms of conventional rocket propellant for the same use.
The test engine’s core ionization chamber was manufactured at Glenn Research Center, while the ion acceleration assembly was designed and built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in California.
Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s vice president for space advanced programs, said: ‘Nasa developed next generation high power solar electric propulsion systems will enhance our nation’s ability to perform future science and human exploration missions.’
The system could also be used to power Nasa’s Asteroid Initiative.
The imitative aims to find asteroids that are a potential threat to human populations on earth and potentially capture and redirect the most threatening asteroids.
Attribution: Sarah Griffiths, Mail Online
Researchers reveal nano coating that could revolutionize space travel
Scientists have created a ‘nano-suit’ for fruit fly larvae which could eventually spell the end of the human spacesuit.
Researchers in Japan discovered that they can protect larvae from the effects of exposure to a space-like vacuum by bombarding them with electrons.
Without the treatment, the larvae shrivel and die within a few minutes.
HOW DOES THE ‘NANO-SUIT’ WORK?
When animals are exposed to a space-like vacuum they are in danger of dehydrating because the water is sucked from their bodies.
Japanese researchers found a way of preventing this happening which avoids the need for a traditional spacesuit.
They bombarded a larva with electrons which caused the molecules in the film covering its skin to stick together.
This created a protective layer flexible enough to allow it to move, but solid enough to stop dehydration.
Most insects do not have the natural layer that can be transformed into a ‘nano-suit’ so the researchers also made an artificial alternative.
They submerged mosquito larvae in a bath of water and Tween 20 – a non-toxic chemical – before covering them in plasma.
This caused the Tween 20 to create a nano-suit similar to that created naturally by the fruit fly larvae.
However, the researchers at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine discovered that when they are protected by a ‘nano-suit’ created by electron bombardment, they can survive the space-like conditions.
Science has reported that the ‘nano-suit’ works like a miniature space suit meaning that it could eventually be used by humans if applied using an electron shower.
To conduct the study, Japanese scientists placed a tiny larva in a scanning electron microscope and bombarded it with electrons. It survived the experience and went on to develop into a healthy fly.
By contrast, they also placed another larva in the same scanning electron microscope without the electron bombardment and this one quickly died of dehydration because, as predicted, the vacuum sucked the water out of its body.
When the researchers studied the skin of the insects they found that the electron treatment had changed the thin film covering the surviving larva’s skin – it had caused its molecules to stick together creating a layer flexible enough to allow it to move, but strong enough to protect it from dehydration.
However, most insects do not have natural layers than can be transformed into ‘nano-suits’ so the scientists decided to create an artificial alternative.
They submerged mosquito larvae in a bath of water and Tween 20 – a non-toxic chemical – before covering them in plasma.
This caused the Tween 20 to create a nano-suit similar to that created naturally by the fruit fly larvae.
Astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild of Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, told Science that the nano-suits could allow creatures, or even people, to survive the extreme environments of space.
The researchers believe that this technique could eventually be used to allow astronauts to do away with their traditional spacesuits.
These protect them from the harsh environment of outer space – the vacuum and the extreme temperatures – by featuring a self-contained oxygen supply and environmental control system.
Attribution: Emma Innes, Daily Mail
Humans ‘exploring Mars’: Amazing pictures from mission simulation base in UTAH
A group of scientists clad in spacesuits trudge across the bleak red terrain, occasionally pausing to take rock samples or map the landscape.
After their mission is complete, they will return to their cramped habitation module, where they live a spartan existence with limited water, electricity, food and oxygen, a vast distance from home.
But these amazing pictures are not from the latest sci-fi thriller set on Mars, but were taken in the deserts of Utah, in the Western United States.
The ‘astronauts’ are a group of volunteers who are helping to discover ways to investigate the feasibility of a human exploration of Mars and use the Utah desert’s Mars-like terrain to simulate working conditions on the red planet.
The project is called the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a simulated off-world habitat that serves as a test site for field operations in preparation for future human missions to Mars.
All outdoor exploration is done wearing simulated spacesuits and carrying air supply packs and crews live together in a small communication base with carefully rationed essentials – everything needed to survive must be produced, fixed and replaced on-site.
The site, near the town of Hanksville, was chosen because the terrain is similar to the surface of Mars.
It is operated by The Mars Society, a non-profit organization that advocates space travel, during the cooler winter months by rotating volunteer crews of six scientists (geologists, biologists, engineers and more) running simulations of how it would be to live on Mars and working together to develop field tactics and study the terrain.
Each crew spends between two weeks and a month living in a habitat unit, performing the kind of work astronauts will be expected to carry out on Mars, such as collecting rock samples from the surface and examining them back in the habitat, conducting life science experiments and studying the local geology and geomorphology.
A statement on the MDRS website says: ‘Mars is the great challenge of our time.
‘A world with a surface area the size of the combined continents of the Earth, the Red Planet contains all the elements needed to support life. As such it is the Rosetta Stone for revealing whether the phenomenon of life is something unique to the Earth, or prevalent in the universe.
‘The exploration of Mars may also tell us whether life as we find it on Earth is the model for life elsewhere, or whether we are just a small part of a much vaster and more varied tapestry.
‘Moreover, as the nearest planet with all the required resources for technological civilisation, Mars will be the decisive trial that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the open frontiers and unlimited prospects available to multi-planet spacefaring species.
‘Offering profound enlightenment to our science, inspiration and purpose to our youth, and a potentially unbounded future for our posterity, the challenge of Mars is one that we must embrace.’
The Utah site is one of two operated by the Mars Society as part of its Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. The other site is located in the Canadian Arctic, with two more planned for the Australian outback and Iceland.
These locations were chosen because some environmental conditions, geologic features or biological attributes may be similar to those thought to be encountered on Mars.
The MDRS website adds: ‘In addition to providing scientific insight into our neighboring world, such analog environments offer unprecedented opportunities to carry out Mars analog field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans for the exploration of that planet. Such research is vitally necessary.
‘For example, it is one thing to walk around a factory test area in a new spacesuit prototype and show that a wearer can pick up a wrench – it is entirely another to subject that same suit to two months of real field work.
‘Similarly, psychological studies of human factors issues, including isolation and habitat architecture are also only useful if the crew being studied is attempting to do real work.’
Mission commander Melissa Battler, who led a crew of six at the Utah site from February 23 to March 9, said: ‘Humans, we are explorers… there are a lot of obstacles but we can overcome those obstacles.’
Attribution: Sam Webb, Mail Online
A Chinese spacecraft has carried out a deep space fly-by on an asteroid four and a half million miles away from the Earth.
The Chang’e-2 probe successfully conducted the mission to scan the surface of the asteroid Toutatis.
It happened on December 13 at 16.30om Beijing Time, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense announced today.
The Chinese space probe flew got around two miles away from the asteroid Toutatis, officials said
At 2.7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, astronomers say it is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid because it makes repeated passes by the Earth, about every four years.
In comparison, the asteroid that is thought to have destroyed the dinosaurs was approximately 10 km (6 miles) wide.
The flyby was the first time an unmanned spacecraft launched from Earth has taken such a close viewing of the asteroid, named after a Celtic god.
China followed in the footsteps of the U.S., the European Union and Japan by using an spacecraft to examine an asteroid.
Chang’e-2 came as close as 2 miles from Toutatis and took pictures of the asteroid at a relative velocity of 10.73km per second, the SASTIND said in a statement.
Sources with the administration told the Xinhua news agency that Chang’e-2 is continuing its deep space travel and will reach a distance of more than six million miles away from Earth in January next year.
Chang’e-2 was launched on October 1, 2010, from Xichang Satellite Launch Center and later orbited the moon in a more ambitious mission than its predecessor Chang’e-1.
Chang’e-2 left its lunar orbit for an extended mission to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point on June 9, 2011, after finishing its lunar objectives, which collected data for a complete lunar map.
Here is a graphic showing the moment the spacecraft passed within two miles of the asteroid Toutatis
Chang’e-2 was launched on October 1, 2010, from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Here is mission control
China claims it was the first to closely observe the asteroid Toutatis, although other space missions have pictured it
The probe departed from L2 this year and began its mission to Toutatis.
Since its blast-off, Chang’e 2 has become the first to capture full coverage map of the moon with a resolution of seven meters.
China claims it was also the first object ever to reach the L2 point directly from lunar orbit; and being the first to closely observe the asteroid Toutatis.
China early this year published a full coverage map of the moon, as well as several high-resolution images of the celestial body, captured by Chang’e-2. The resolution of the images is 17 times greater than those taken by Chang’e-1.
‘The success of the extended missions also embodies that China now possesses spacecraft capable of interplanetary flight,’ said Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar probe program.
Chang’e-2’s extended missions, which were conducted millions of miles away from Earth, have tested China’s spacecraft tracking and control network, including two newly built measuring and control stations in the northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and northeast Heilongjiang province, according to the SASTIND.
However, China still belongs to the second tier in lunar probe internationally, said Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for China’s lunar orbiter project, adding that the U.S. and Russia are still leading nations in this field.
Wu Weiren stressed the need for international cooperation in lunar probe mission, saying it is a shared responsibility of world scientists to work together in lunar and deep space exploration for the common good of the human race.
Attribution: Leon Watson, Daily Mail
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3D
A spinoff from robotic space technology may someday help astronauts stay fit in space and help paraplegics walk on Earth, Nasa says.
The U.S. space agency and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) have jointly developed a robotic exoskeleton called X1.
In the inhibit mode, the X1 exoskeleton would be used as an in-space exercise machine to supply resistance against leg movement.
The same technology could be used in reverse on the ground, potentially helping some individuals walk for the first time.
The X1 is based on the technology behind Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space, which is currently working with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
‘Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will be critical in our future human exploration of deep space,’ said Michael Gazarik, director of Nasa’s Space Technology Program.
‘It’s exciting to see a Nasa-developed technology might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs to begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time.
Worn over the legs, with a harness that reaches up the back and around the shoulders, X1 has four motorized joints at the hips and the knees, and six passive joints that allow for sidestepping, turning and pointing, and flexing a foot.
There also are multiple adjustment points, allowing the X1 to be used in many different ways.
Nasa is examining the potential for the X1 as an exercise device to improve crew health both aboard the space station and during future long-duration missions to an asteroid or Mars.
In addition, the device has the ability to measure, record and stream back data in real-time to flight controllers on Earth, giving doctors better insight into the crew’s health.
X1 could also provide a robotic power boost to astronauts as they work on the surface of distant planetary bodies. Coupled with a spacesuit, X1 could provide additional force when needed during surface exploration.
Here on Earth, IHMC is interested in developing and using X1 as an assistive walking device. It has the potential to produce high torques to allow for assisted walking over varied terrain, as well as stair climbing.
‘We greatly value our collaboration with Nasa,’ said Ken Ford, IHMC’s director and CEO. ‘The X1’s high-performance capabilities will enable IHMC to continue performing cutting-edge research in mobility assistance and expand into rehabilitation.’
The potential of X1 extends to other applications, including rehabilitation, gait modification and offloading large amounts of weight from the wearer.
Preliminary studies by IHMC have already shown X1 to be more comfortable, easier to adjust, and easier to put on than older exoskeleton devices.
Researchers now plan on improving on the X1 design by adding more active joints to areas such as the ankle and hip to increase the potential uses for the device.
Attribution: Damien Gayle
We might not be able to get there yet, but as NASA says, ‘this is the next best thing’.
From fresh rover tracks to an impact crater blasted billions of years ago, a newly completed view from the panoramic camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the ruddy terrain where the voyaging robot spent the Martian winter.
Scenes recorded from the mast-mounted color camera include the rover’s own solar arrays and deck in the foreground, provides a sense of sitting on top of the rover and taking in the view.
This full-circle scene combines 817 images taken by the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. It shows the terrain that surrounded the rover while it was stationary for four months of work during its most recent Martian winter.
Opportunity’s Pancam took the component images between the 2,811th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s Mars surface mission (Dec. 21, 2011) and Sol 2,947 (May 8, 2012).
Opportunity spent those months on a northward sloped outcrop, ‘Greeley Haven,’ which angled the rover’s solar panels toward the sun low in the northern sky during southern hemisphere winter.
The outcrop’s informal name is a tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), who was a member of the mission team and who taught generations of planetary scientists at Arizona State University, Tempe. The site is near the northern tip of the ‘Cape York’ segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.
Bright wind-blown deposits on the left are banked up against the Greeley Haven outcrop. Opportunity’s tracks can be seen extending from the south, with a turn-in-place and other maneuvers evident from activities to position the rover at Greeley Haven. The tracks in some locations have exposed darker underlying soils by disturbing a thin, bright dust cover.
Other bright, dusty deposits can be seen to the north, northeast, and east of Greeley Haven. The deposit at the center of the image, due north from the rover’s winter location, is a dusty patch called ‘North Pole’. Opportunity drove to it and investigated it in May 2012 as an example of wind-blown Martian dust.
The Endeavour Crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.
Opportunity’s solar panels and other structures show dust that has accumulated over the lifetime of the mission. Opportunity has been working on Mars since January 2004.
During the recent four months that Opportunity worked at Greeley Haven, activities included radio-science observations to better understand Martian spin axis dynamics and thus interior structure, investigations of the composition and textures of an outcrop exposing an impact-jumbled rock formation on the crater rim, monitoring the atmosphere and surface for changes, and acquisition of this full-color mosaic of the surroundings.
The panorama combines exposures taken through Pancam filters centered on wavelengths of 753 nanometers (near infrared), 535 nanometers (green) and 432 nanometers (violet). The view is presented in false color to make some differences between materials easier to see.
Its release coincided with two milestones: Opportunity completing its 3,000th Martian day on July 2, and NASA continuing past 15 years of robotic presence at Mars on July 4.
The new panorama is presented in false color to emphasise differences between materials in the scene.
It was assembled from 817 component images taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012, while Opportunity was stationed on an outcrop informally named ‘Greeley Haven’. on a segment of the rim of ancient Endeavour Crater.
Pancam lead scientist Jim Bell said: ‘The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover’s fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we’ve driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission.’
Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in January 2004 for missions originally planned to last for three months. NASA’s next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, is on course for landing on Mars next month.
Opportunity’s science team chose to call the winter campaign site Greeley Haven in tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), a team member who taught generations of planetary science students at Arizona State University.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Later this year, the car-sized Curiosity Rover will land on Mars.
Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.
It has a robotic arm which deploys two instruments, scoops soil, prepares and delivers samples for analytic instruments and brushes surfaces.
Its assignment is to investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.
The goal of the mission is to assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life.
Curiosity will land near the foot of a layered mountain inside Gale crater, layers of this mountain contain minerals that form in water.
The portion of the crater floor where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments.
Curiosity will also carry the most advanced load of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.
Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003.
Attribution: Mail Online
More than three decades after launching, NASA’s workhorse spacecraft is now close to the edge of our solar system.
Voyager 1 has been exploring the fringes of the solar system since 2004 – and it is now close to the very edge of our solar system, affording the first-ever ‘alien’s eye’ view of our planet.
The probe is still detecting ‘spikes’ in the intensity of cosmic ray electrons – which lead scientists to think it’s still within the ‘heliosheath’, the very outer edge of our solar system.
Voyager 1 still has a little way
to go before it completely exits the solar system and becomes the first manmade probe to cross into interstellar space, or the vast space between stars.
The spacecraft has enough battery power to last until 2020, but scientists think it will reach interstellar space before that – in a matter of several months to years.
Chief scientist Ed Stone of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the timing is unclear because no spacecraft has ever ventured this far.
‘The journey continues,’ Stone told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. For the past year, Voyager 1 used its instruments to explore the new region.
It appeared to be the cosmic doldrums where solar winds streaming out from the sun at 1 million mph have dramatically eased and high-energy particles from outside are seeping in a sign that Voyager 1 is at the doorstep of interstellar space.
Scientists expect to see several telltale signs when Voyager 1 finally crosses the boundary including a change in the magnetic field direction and the type of wind. Interstellar wind is slower, colder and denser than solar wind.
Even with certain expectations, Stone warned that the milestone won’t be cut-and-dried.
‘We will be confused when it first happens,’ Stone said.
Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched in 1977 to tour the outer planets including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. After their main mission ended, both headed toward interstellar space in opposite directions. Voyager 2 is traveling slower than Voyager 1 and is currently 9 billion away miles from the sun.