Tag Archives: space flight

The billionaire space race is upon us — and there’s an early leader

With billions spent over more than a decade, a small group of billionaires (just three, actually) are competing against each other to send commercial shuttles into space and eventually capture the large, untapped space tourism market — and one of them has already secured the first trip.

Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, outraced fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk by reaching the edge of space, reaching 55 miles (88km) above the Earth’s surface – after 17 years of development and $1 billion invested. Speaking from the spacecraft, he called the flight “the experience of a lifetime” and said he had dreamt about it since he was a child.

The spacecraft VSS Unity launched above the skies of New Mexico, with two pilots guiding the vehicle that carried Branson and three employees. VSS Unity performed a slow backflip in microgravity and the crew floated around the cabin. The vehicle then returned through the atmosphere in a glide, landing where it took off from. All in all, the flight went exactly as planned.

The Virgin flight

Branson was accompanied by pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, chief astronaut Beth Moses, operations engineer Colin Bennett and VP of government affairs Sirisha Bandla. VSS Unity can take up to six passengers and two pilots, and the flights won’t go empty anytime soon. The company already has 600 reservations for tickets on future flights, sold between $200,000 and $250,000 each. 

“We’re here to make space more accessible to all at all,” Branson said In a press conference after the flight. “The mission statement that I wrote inside my spacesuit was to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for my grandchildren … and for many people who are alive today, for everybody.”

This was the fourth flight to date for Virgin Galactic, its second so far this year, and the first carrying more than one passenger. As well as flying Branson, the company has other goals, as it aims to begin its commercial service in early 2022. The crew members are testing the spacecraft’s cabin and Virgin’s training program, as well as doing research experiments. 

After landing back on Earth, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic partnered with sweepstakes company Omaze to offer a chance at two seats on “one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic spaceflights” early next year. The billionaire said he will put on his “Willy Wonka hat” to give the winners a guided tour of Spaceport America.

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to fly passengers to space. He started the company to buy spacecraft built by aerospace designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, which created the SpaceShipOne vehicle. The company then built VSS Unity and began testing it in 2016 – reaching space in 2018 for the first time.

The company got a license expansion last month from the US Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to fly passengers on future spaceflights. To get the license, Virgin had to complete a verification and validation program for the FAA. The last two regulatory milestones were met with the most recent spaceflight test in May. With all the hurdles passed, Branson was free to rush to the edge of space — and that he did.

Branson wasn’t previously expected to fly on last weekend’s spaceflight, as Virgin had said the company planned to fly the founder on its second to last test flight. But after fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos announced his own plan to fly on his company Blue Origin’s first passenger flight on July 20, Virgin decided to rearrange the schedule to secure an early lead in the “billionaire space race.”

A fast-moving race

Launching ahead of Bezos or Elon Musk, a symbolic win, turned Branson into the first of the billionaire space company founders to ride on his own spacecraft. The three are competing in the realm of suborbital space tourism, with the goal of carrying passengers to the edge of space and experience microgravity for a few minutes. Business hasn’t even started, and it’s already booming.

Global space tourism is projected to reach just $1.7 billion by 2027, according to a report published earlier this year. Virgin already has some big names on its list of confirmed customers, from Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis to Justine Bieber and Rihanna – who have allegedly paid the $250,000 ticket for a seat on future flights. 

Jeff Bezos. Image credit: Blue Origin

Founded by Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin recently announced its first passenger flight for July 20. Coincidentally or not, Bezos also announced he would step down as CEO of Amazon beforehand. This means Bezos can now be more focused on his space projects without the stress of Amazon operations.

“On July 20th, I will take that journey with my brother,” Bezos wrote in a recent Instagram post. “The greatest adventure, with my best friend. To see the Earth from space, it changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one Earth. I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life.”

The flight will officially kick off Blue Origin’s space tourism business. Although the company hasn’t yet released details about how one could book tickets (and how much it would cost), there are speculations that the announcements will be coming soon. For now, Bezos is reading for the July 20th flight, with three minutes of weightlessness.

Meanwhile, fellow billionaire Elon Musk is not staying idle. A Galactic spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that Musk had bought a ticket for his own space ride with Virgin Galactic. It’s not clear when he would fly or how extensive is the waiting list. Branson’s company plans to do two more symbolic flights this year and open them to the public in 2022. 

Musk, the SpaceX CEO who wants to colonize Mars, and Branson are known to be friends, while Musk and Bezos share a frosty rivalry. Hours before Branson’s flight, Musk had said that he would be there to wish him the best and see him off. He kept his word, posting a photo with the two of them together before Branson’s flight. 

A new push for space tourism

It might seem like a new thing, but space tourism actually has a long history. The first space tourist was Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million a ticket. He flew on a Russian spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2001. His net worth is one billion, so it can be argued he beat fellow billionaires Bezos, Branson, and Musk to space by 20 years. But then again, this is a different type of race.

Tito was then followed by other six wealthy private citizens that visited the ISS. The list included the first female space tourist, Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari. Hungarian-American software billionaire Charles Simonyi, who flew twice, and Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberté – the co-founder of the Cirque du Soleil. 

But after these first few attempts, orbital space tourism ended abruptly in 2010 due to an increase in the ISS crew size. In the meantime, space entrepreneurs started pursuing the rocket plane concept. The space company Scaled Composites flew in October 2004 an experimental space place to 112 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

The company later merged with Branson’s Virgin Galactic, establishing a waiting list for $250,000 space flights. Branson promised tourism flights as soon as 2008 but there were many setbacks in the way, including a fatal accident. These derailed the timetable but Virgin is now much closer to taking tourists to the edge of space. 

But Bezos poked a bit at Branson, alluding that the latter didn’t fly into “true” space. Basically, Virgin Galactic’s flight soared at nearly 300,000 feet (57 miles) in altitude — enough to reach what NASA and the US government defines as the beginning of space (50 miles above sea level), but not enough to reach the Kármán line — the boundary set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The Kármán line is defined at 100 kilometers or 62 miles above sea level, and Blue Origin pointed out that this is what “96 percent of the world’s population” recognizes as the beginning of outer space. Blue Origin will fly to the Kármán line in subsequent rides, a spokesperson said.

After decades of space tourism being little more than science fiction, it’s finally becoming a reality. With Branson in the lead for now and Bezos and Musk hot on his trail, the billionaire space race is just beginning. Who knows what it will bring us?

China wants to practice deflecting an asteroid with rockets

A government-funded study from China says that by using 23 Long March 5 (CZ-5) rockets (the largest China has in its fleet), we could break up rocky objects in our solar system and save the Earth from potentially catastrophic asteroids. The country wants to put the hypothesis to the test.

Asteroid Bennu: a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group discovered by the LINEAR Project on 11 September 1999. It is a potentially hazardous asteroid. Image credits: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona.

Asteroids come in many shapes and sizes. Many are as small as pebbles, while others are kilometers or even hundreds of kilometers across. A kilometer-wide asteroid strikes the Earth on average once every 600,000 years, and would have global consequences, but even a 500-meter asteroid, which hits the Earth once every 10,000 years, can easily kill millions.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from science fiction, it’s that having an insurance policy against such an asteroid could come in handy. At China’s National Space Science Center, researchers simulated just that.

The researchers analyzed how Long March rockets could help deflect such an asteroid on a course for our planet. They found that 23 such rockets hitting simultaneously could deflect a large asteroid from its original path by a distance of 1.4 times the Earth’s radius — more than enough to avoid catastrophic damage.

The technology is at our doorstep “[It is] possible to defend against large asteroids with a nuclear-free technique within 10 years,” said author Li Mingtao and colleagues in a June paper published in Icarus

According to Reuters, China would also test the idea by turning away a sizable asteroid, although details on this are still scarce at this point.

China is far from the only country looking at this type of technology. In less than two years’ time, NASA will also look at asteroid-deflecting technology. The space agency will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept two small asteroids relatively close to the Earth and see how much their trajectory changes. This will be humanity’s first attempt at deflecting the course of a celestial body.

However, while it’s encouraging that several countries are working on asteroid-deflecting programs, whether or not space powers would collaborate in a potential doomsday scenario is anyone’s guess.

“The problem is, when the doomsday threat comes, politics may override science and lots of time may be wasted on debates to decide which country should take the lead,” said an unnamed space researcher at Beijing’s Tsinghua University for SMCP. The researcher did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

China’s CZ-5 rockets are also a bit concerning. Due to their size, their descent back onto the Earth can become quite hazardous and difficult. In May, one such rocket crashed traveling at thousands of miles an hour. While the debris didn’t hit any human settlement, it showcased that China needs to up its game as a responsible space power.

Space pups: mouse sperm stored on International Space Station produces healthy offspring

Mouse sperm was frozen and stored on the International Space Station for six years — exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation. The sperm was stored in freeze-dried form, and then rehydrated after it was brought back to Earth. Now, Japanese researchers have found that the sperm produced a brood of healthy pups that don’t seem at all different from their earthbound brethren.

This September 11, 2020, image courtesy of Teruhiko Wakayama, University of Yamanashi, shows healthy offspring and next generation of mice derived from space preserved spermatozoa.

Remarkably unremarkable

The experiment started in 2013, when developmental biologist Teruhiko Wakayama and colleagues launched three boxes to the International Space Station (ISS) for a study. The boxes contained samples of freeze-dried mouse sperm, and the goal of the study was to see whether exposure to cosmic radiation would have any effects on offspring produced with the sperm. In particular, the researchers were looking to see if any genetic mutations would be passed on.

Freeze-dried sperm was used because it can be preserved at room temperature (rather than requiring a freezer), and it only requires a small amount of space, thus reducing the costs of flying to and storing aboard the ISS. The entire setup was about the size of a pencil.

Radiation can damage DNA within cells, and space radiation has been a concern for astronomers for a while now, with astronauts from countries like the US and Japan being engaged in lengthy missions in low orbit — and even longer missions on the horizon. Space agencies are looking at developing systems that could protect astronauts from the long-term effects of radiation, which can damage the DNA within cells and cause mutations.

This is where the space pups come in. After the sperm was returned to Earth, it was rehydrated and used for fertilization. There appeared to be no difference between the offspring obtained thusly, and the control group. When the space mice reached adulthood, they were randomly mated and the next generation appeared normal as well.

“All pups had normal appearance,” Wakayama told AFP, and when researchers examined their genes “no abnormalities were found.”

From SciFi to reality

Wakayama was inspired by the science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov and once wanted to be an astronaut. He shifted paths somewhat and opted for a science career, working to turn the concepts described in fiction works into reality.

If humanity wants to carry on exploring the solar system and eventually even move beyond that, we’ll need to have a safe way of ensuring long-term space flight. If this happens, we’ll need ways to ensure the genetic diversity of space colonizers — as well as their pets and animals. According to the team’s calculations, freeze-dried sperm can be safely stored for up to 200 years on board an orbital ship as the process of freeze drying increases its tolerance.

“In the future, when the time comes to migrate to other planets, we will need to mantain the diversity of genetic resources, not only for humans but also for pets and domestic animals,” Wakayama and colleagues wrote in their paper.

“For cost and safety reasons, it is likely that stored germ cells will be transported by spaceships rather than by living animals.”

While the results are encouraging though, they don’t guarantee that humans can freely travel to the stars now. The same findings would need to be replicated on humans, and in addition, the effects of space radiation on frozen female eggs and fertilized embryos would also have to be investigated. The human space age isn’t here quite yet. But it may not be long now.

Journal References: Sayaka Wakayama et al, Evaluating the long-term effect of space radiation on the reproductive normality of mammalian sperm preserved on the International Space Station, Science Advances (2021). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abg5554

Ingenuity helicopter makes its first one-way flight on Mars

It came, it saw, it conquered — after four successful return flights, Ingenuity (the first man-made machine to take flight on another planet) is now embarking on a new adventure: flying from place to place, accompanying the Perseverance rover, and studying Mars from above.

Ingenuity flying, as seen by Perseverance. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

There’s a drone *on Mars*

Ingenuity was meant to be just a proof of concept, a stepping stone for future missions. But it already is more than just that.

After having its Wright Brothers moment and taking off in a rarefied atmosphere (the Martian atmosphere is just 1% as dense as that on the Earth), it carried out three more flights, each longer than the previous. For each of these flights, though, it went in one direction and then returned to its original launch area (named after the Wright Brothers).

The fifth flight was different, though. After rising up to 33 feet (10 meters) and capturing high-resolution color images of its new neighborhood, it went south and safely landed at a new location.

“We bid adieu to our first Martian home, Wright Brothers Field, with grateful thanks for the support it provided to the historic first flights of a planetary rotorcraft,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at JPL. “No matter where we go from here, we will always carry with us a reminder of how much those two bicycle builders from Dayton meant to us during our pursuit of the first flight on another world.”

The view from a helicopter on Mars. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

A new step

The flight marks a transition to a new phase in its mission. This will focus on assessing what capabilities such a device can provide, especially as a complement to the Perseverance rover. The helicopter can scout and provide detailed aerial imaging, information that could greatly benefit future exploration missions on Mars. The rover-helicopter duo will work together to unlock unprecedented research capability.

So far, everything is going according to plan — which, when you’re working remotely with instruments on another planet, is already a fantastic achievement. But in some regards, Ingenuity is even surpassing what its engineers had hoped for.

“The power system that we fretted over for years is providing more than enough energy to keep our heaters going at night and to fly during the day,” a NASA press release mentioned. “The off-the-shelf components for our guidance and navigation systems are also doing great, as is our rotor system. You name it, and it’s doing just fine or better.”

Of course, at any point, something could go wrong. After all, Ingenuity has fulfilled its original mission and is now trying on an extended schedule (proof that even on Mars, those that work well are assigned overtime).

NASA engineers are fully aware of the risks, and they’re taking things step by step.

“We will now be flying over unsurveyed terrains and transfer to airfields that are not well characterized so there’s a higher probability of a bad landing,” explained MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager.

“We will be celebrating each day that ingenuity survives and operates beyond the original window.”

“The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations,” said Balaram. “We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.”

Still, it’s hard to not get excited at the prospect of a helicopter assisting a rover to explore another planet. It’s barely been a century since the first human flight, and now we’re already sending flying devices to other planets. Just a few decades ago, this would have seemed like science fiction more than an actual possibility — yet here we are.

We hope to be reporting on Ingenuity for a long time.

Meet the three people paying $55 million for a space vacation

They’re all extremely wealthy, and they have one more thing in common: they’ll be spending an eight-day orbital trip on the International Space Station sometime next year, part of the first fully-private astronaut crew to journey the ISS.

Money may not buy everything, but it can now buy you views like this. Image credits: NASA.

It’s an interesting trio: one is a former Israeli Air Force pilot, another is a Canadian investor, while the last is an American real estate tycoon. Eytan Stibbe, Mark Pathy, and Larry Connor will become the first space tourists in history, each paying a whopping $55 million for the honor, under the watchful eyes of Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut.

López-Alegría flew to space four times and spent 10 years as NASA’s ISS program manager. Now, he is a vice president and founder of Axiom Space, the company behind the project.

“This is really groundbreaking,” López-Alegría told CNBC, as “never has an entire crew been non-professional astronauts.”

There’s nothing special about the three tourists, other that they can afford the experience. They’re just guys “who want to be able to go to space”, said López-Alegría.

It’s a watershed moment for human space flight. While it’s not pushing the boundaries of what we can do, it’s pushing a different boundary: that of making space more accessible. Sure, it’s only accessible for the filthy rich right now, but it’s still a step up from ‘nobody’.

The crew’s flight to the ISS will take place at some point next year if everything goes according to plan. The four will fly 250 miles above the Earth over the course of two days, after which they’ll spend 8 days aboard the ISS, where they’ll be involved in “research and philanthropic projects”, Axiom said in a statement. They’ll be living alongside the astronauts working on the ISS.

There aren’t any bedrooms for them on the ISS, but sleeping in zero G is pretty much the same anywhere you do it, says López-Alegría — you just close your eyes.

It’s not the first time a non-astronaut was flown to the ISS. Over the years, several wealthy individuals made their way to the space station in the early 2000s. But they were brought there aboard the Russian Soyuz, and they were always accompanied by professional astronauts heading to the ISS. This is the first purely touristic flight.

This was made possible by a change in NASA policy that came in 2019, allowing private astronauts flights to the ISS, as part of the agency’s plans to diversify its operations and encourage commercial space partnerships.

If everything goes right, it’s a win-win situation. For the space tourists, it will be an amazing opportunity that comes at a fraction at their net worth. For NASA, it’s a profit-making system that can funnel additional funding for research and other projects into the agency. It costs NASA $11,250 per astronaut per day for support systems, $22,500 for food, air, and medical supplies, and $42 for energy. It’s a hefty price, but it’s still a far cry from the $55 million the space tourists will be paying. The whole mission will cost about $1.1 million for the four of them.

Space tourism is bound to boom, with all the private enterprises working on it. Virgin Galactic offers groups of four the experience of zero G for a few hundred thousand dollars, SpaceX is already heavily involved in NASA projects, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will also launch suborbital experiences with its vertcally launched New Shepard rocket. But being the first of its kind, this mission will likely define how future ones take place.

So, there you have it — your dream of flying into outer space is now available for non-astronauts as well. All you have to do is become very (very) rich and get a bit lucky. No biggie.

SpaceX bought two oil platforms to transform them into launchpads

The two former oil rigs (renamed Phobos and Deimos like the Martian moons) will now be used as launchpads for the SpaceX Starship rocket, which is designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Valaris plc has had a pretty lousy 2020. Like all oil companies, it suffered as the price of oil declined sharply, but Valaris seemed to take it worse than others, filing for bankruptcy in July. Turns out, before doing that, it sold two oil rigs for $3.5 million each to SpaceX.

SpaceX has long eyed launch and landing sites for its Starship launch system, and a water-based seaport would fit the bill excellently, especially since the ship will have a large blast area and would create a lot of noise (a common problem for populated areas). The two rigs in the Port of Brownsville, near SpaceX’s Starship development facility in Boca Chica, Texas, will not pose that problem.

Although the oil rigs were sold half a year ago, SpaceX didn’t openly announce it. NASA Space Flight magazine pieced things together, noticing that at the time the rigs were sold, SpaceX started advertising positions around Brownsville, including crane operators, electricians, and offshore operations engineers. In particular, one job advert called for applicants who can “install enhancements and major upgrades to offshore vessel electrical systems.” At the same time, founder Elon Musk confirmed that SpaceX was “building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth”. Now, the mystery has been lifted: the project involves SpaceX and its massive Starship, meant to send people to Mars and (maybe) back.

So far, the Starship prototype launched to about 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), but despite passing some of the checkpoints, it exploded when it reached the ground. It’s pretty much still a work in progress, although Musk has great hopes for it.

SpaceX plans to eventually send not one, but multiple Starships to Mars during a single launch window (the period when the orbit of Earth will help put the rocket on a trajectory to Mars — just a few weeks every 26 months). There’s still a lot of work to be done, but if everything goes smoothly, Phobos and Deimos can enter service in late 2021. Until then, the Starship launch system is already expected to become operational, for orbital flights.

“SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth,” Musk had previously tweeted in June 16, 2020

Based on the extensive work still needed to prepare the rigs, Phobos and Deimos will likely enter service after the initial orbital flights of the Starship launch system. The first orbital Starship launch from Boca Chica could occur in late 2021, pending successful Starship and Super Heavy testing throughout the year.

SpaceX also plans to eventually send multiple Starships to Mars during a single interplanetary transfer window. These flights will be in addition to perhaps hundreds of Starship missions to Earth orbit before carrying any people.

NASA’s asteroid sampling mission ran into a problem: they sampled too much asteroid

Two days ago, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission landed on and sampled an asteroid barreling through space. We now have confirmation that the craft retrieved enough material for the mission to be considered a success — in fact, it may have sampled a bit too much.

An image captured by the SamCam camera on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft showing the sampler head with the flap wedged open. Image credits NASA.

OSIRIS-REx‘s target was to bring back home at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of material from the asteroid’s surface. One of the ways NASA planned to check if this was met was to weigh the sample over the coming few weeks by spinning the spacecraft around (there’s no gravity out there, so we have to simulate it). However, images beamed back by the probe show that enough material has been recovered.

A handful of dirt

The craft’s Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, which was tasked with actually retrieving the asteroid sample, appeared to be full of particles, according to ground control. It’s actually overflowing to an extent, as the mylar flap which acts as a lid for the collector is wedged slightly open by larger rocks in the sample.

Right now, they’re working on stowing the sample as quickly as possible to avoid losing material into space. They fear that any additional movement of the instrument or the craft as a whole could dislodge additional dust, or otherwise lead to further loss of the sample.

“Although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have. We are so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In order to preserve the sample, NASA decided to not start measuring the sample’s mass (which included a braking burn on Friday) as was originally planned. Instead, they will focus on transferring it to the return capsule, where any loose material will be kept safe.

NASA unveils plans to send first woman, next man to the Moon

The last time a human went to the Moon was on December 19, 1972, during the Apollo 17 mission. Now, NASA wants to once again send people up there.

Concept art from NASA’s Artemis plan. Image credits: NASA.

Since the dawn of time, humans have looked at the moon with fascination and curiosity. The space race that culminated with the moon landing is one of the most cherished accomplishments of mankind (especially when you consider that they pulled it off with a small fraction of today’s computing power). But after we sent people to the moon, retrieved samples, and got a decent understanding of the lunar surface, the incentive for manned missions dropped substantially. After all, even with today’s technology, sending people to the moon is very expensive.

But manned lunar missions may be catching a second wind.

In the last 18 months, NASA accepted a challenge to develop a new moon exploration plan. For the first time in almost 50 years, the space agency has a tangible plan to send people to the moon — and it wants to do so by 2024, with the Artemis program. The plan is to use the same impetus as with the space race, but deploy innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before, and land the first woman and next man on the Moon.

NASA wants to use its powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) in conjunction with the Orion spacecraft, a class of partially reusable space capsules from NASA’s human spaceflight programs. The first stage of Artemis will feature three flights to the moon: first, an unpiloted SLS test flight, then a piloted 10-day loop around the moon (set for 2023), and a piloted landing near the south pole of the moon (in 2024).

The project also includes the development of new spacesuits and the development of new exploration technologies. The spacesuits of the Apollo missions were sturdy but bulky, which just won’t do for NASA’s new plan. The new generation of spacesuits will be designed for greater flexibility, allowing astronauts to collect more samples and carry out even more experiments on the lunar surface. The design of these suits will be particularly important as NASA also eyes the establishment of a permanent (or at least long-term) research center on the moon (akin to the International Space Station).

The scientific outpost is meant to be sustainable, allowing the addition of new modules by international partners. The development is still at the concept stage and an Artemis base camp would require substantial infrastructure, from rovers and power systems to living areas and water.

For now, the Artemis plan is to use humans and robots to search for resources such as water and usable materials on the lunar surface and fine-tune landing and mobility technologies, allowing astronauts to travel farther and farther on the moon.

Of course, such a massive endeavor would require strong political support. So far, the Senate has not yet passed a budget bill for this project — and the House has only offered $628 million so far.

“With bipartisan support from Congress, our 21st century push to the Moon is well within America’s reach,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “As we’ve solidified more of our exploration plans in recent months, we’ve continued to refine our budget and architecture. We’re going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new a generation of explorers. As we build up a sustainable presence, we’re also building momentum toward those first human steps on the Red Planet.”

While both the SLS and Orion are on track if no major issues emerge, the 2024 moon landing target depends on Congress giving NASA $3.2 billion for the lander development in 2021. The $628 million is a farcry from what NASA is asking.

Nevertheless, Bridenstine remains optimistic that the project will gain political support. But if things won’t go as planned, there will be no Artemis.

“It’s really simple. If Congress doesn’t fund the moon landing program, then it won’t be achieved (in 2024), I mean it’s really that simple,” Bridenstine said. But he quickly added: “I want to be clear, if they push the funding off, our goal will be to get to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The ISS starts experimenting with a photo-bioreactor

As if having a research station in space wasn’t awesome enough — astronauts are now getting a photo-bioreactor which will use algae to produce clean oxygen.

Image credits: IRS Stuttgart/DLR.

As NASA is tentatively considering deep-space exploration, it’s starting to hit one of the hard limitations on this type of project: the human body. Unlike engines, fuel tanks, or other spacecraft components, the human body is very difficult to tweak. It requires a fixed set of resources without which it just cannot do. Air, water, and food are the most important ones, and ensuring this triad in a long-term space shuttle is not easy.

The ISS is constantly re-equipped with supplies but in order for a long-term mission to succeed, we would need a closed-loop system with recycling and reusing resources. In the case of air, the basic system is simple: we already have an excellent mechanism to recycle oxygen in the form of plants. However, while the principle is pretty clear, implementation has proven quite challenging. However, NASA believes it may have found a solution in the form of a photobioreactor.

This German-made experiment has been flown onto the ISS and experimentation has commenced just this week. The system sucks some of the carbon dioxide and a few other gases from the air, producing methane and water from it, the latter of which is then fed back through the system into an electrolysis process that produces oxygen. The oxygen is then recycled into the cabin.

A summary of how the system works. Image credits: IRS Stuttgart/DLR. Click to zoom in.

It’s a clever hybrid system that mixes the algae’s natural chemical abilities with a manmade electrolysis system. This approach works much better than the individual sum of its parts.

“With the first demonstration of the hybrid approach, we are right at the forefront when it comes to the future of life-support systems,” said the exploration and project leader Oliver Angerer in a statement for the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“Of course, the use of these systems is interesting primarily for planetary base stations or for very long missions. But these technologies will not be available when needed if the foundations are not laid today.”

The key player of this system is Chlorella vulgaris, a green microalgae also used as a protein-rich food additive. The photosynthetic microorganism has a thick cell wall and is overall very resilient, which makes it excellently suited for long-term missions. It only needs light and small amounts of a nutrient solution. In addition, the algae could be consumed for nutrients — something which is not explored in the current experiment but might be possible nonetheless.

For now, the system is not capable of producing sufficient oxygen for the entire ISS crew, but it will serve as a proof-of-concept for larger-scale experiments. Having a self-sustainable oxygen source is crucial for long-term space missions, as well as future base stations on the Moon or on Mars.

NASA cancels all-female spacewalk — cites lack of spacesuit in the right size

Earlier this month, NASA announced that Christina Koch and Anne McClain would take part in an unprecedented all-female spacewalk, to install new batteries on the International Space Station. Turns out, there won’t be a girls-only spacewalk after all.

Image credits: NASA.

Having an all-female spacewalk was never a planned deal — it just happened to pan out that way. But given how unrepresented women are in space flight and the sciences in general, the media got understandably excited. Perhaps, however, it was too soon to get excited. NASA has often made changes to its spacewalks, and they warned us that changes may occur.

“It was not orchestrated to be this way,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz explained when the first news broke. “Spacewalk assignments may be adjusted if the flight operations team deems it necessary,” Schierholz wrote in the original press statement about the latest spacewalk schedule.

Turns out, it wasn’t mean to be, due to a lack of adequate space suit sizes. McLain had trained in both M and L torso costume sizes, but although she grew by 2 cm since going on the ISS (astronauts in microgravity can grow significantly taller), she concluded that an M is definitely a better fit. However, there was only one M suit, and that needs to go to Koch, so the all-female mission will have to take a raincheck.

Unfortunately, many took to social media to point the finger at NASA and blame them for this turn of events. Spacewalks are very complex and delicate missions, and they are not without danger. Being in a wrong-fit suit just adds more unnecessary risks, and NASA opted for the simplest solution: replace the astronaut, not the suit. It was a practical consideration. It’s not like NASA has the luxury of storing extra suits — they barely have enough suits as it is.

“Of the 11 remaining complete and functional spacesuits, 4 are kept on the ISS and the remaining 7 are on Earth in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance,” a 2017 audit stated.

This being said, we are still waiting for an all-female mission. It would be an important landmark and one which, at the very least, NASA is now aware of.

More than 500 people have been into space, but only 11% of them have been women. The first woman to perform a spacewalk was the Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, 35 years ago. When McClain took part in a spacewalk last week, she became only the 13th woman to do so. Koch will be the 14th. Both Koch and Mclain were part of Nasa’s 2013 class, which was half female.

Spaceflight activates dormant viruses like herpes

You can now also add herpes to the list of many perils and challenges to human health that outer space poses. According to a new study, spaceflight weakens the immune system enough to reactivate dormant viruses such as the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV), varicella-zoster virus (VZV), and herpes-simplex-1 (HSV-1).

Credit: Public Domain.

Researchers at the Johnson Space Center found that spaceflight increases the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are known to suppress the immune system. This way, viruses inside our bodies that are in a latent state (meaning they do not replicate) become reactivated because immune cells are no longer able to suppress or eliminate them.

“NASA astronauts endure weeks or even months exposed to microgravity and cosmic radiation—not to mention the extreme G forces of take-off and re-entry,” says senior author Dr. Satish K. Mehta of  Johnson Space Center. “This physical challenge is compounded by more familiar stressors like social separation, confinement and an altered sleep-wake cycle.”

Mehta and colleagues analyzed saliva, blood, and urine samples collected from astronauts before, both during and after spaceflight. Most people get oral herpes — or herpes simplex virus type 1 — by the age of 20. Following the first infection, usually after one or two weeks, the virus will become dormant in facial nerve tissues. The researchers found that about half of all astronauts aboard Space Shuttle and International Space Station had four of eight know herpes viruses in an activate state, although only six astronauts (a small proportion) developed symptoms. Other reactivated viruses include CMV and EBV, which are associated with different strains of mononucleosis or the “kissing disease”.

“To date, 47 out of 89 (53%) astronauts on short space shuttle flights, and 14 out of 23 (61%) on longer ISS missions shed herpes viruses in their saliva or urine samples,” reports Mehta. “These frequencies—as well as the quantity—of viral shedding are markedly higher than in samples from before or after flight, or from matched healthy controls.”

The researchers found that virus shedding was active in astronauts for up to 60 days after returning to Earth. Although only a few astronauts developed symptoms, continued virus shedding could endanger immunocompromised or uninfected contacts on Earth, like newborns.

This is just one of the many adverse effects caused by spaceflight. Previously, researchers found that prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment can result in tissue damage to the gastrointestinal tract, eyes, and brain. Mehta and colleagues suggest that targetted vaccine protocols for astronauts might offset some of the risks associated with virus reactivation.

“Trials of other herpes virus vaccines show little promise, so our present focus is on developing targeted treatment regimens for individuals suffering the consequences of viral reactivation,” Mehta said.

“This research has tremendous clinical relevance for patients on Earth too. Already, our spaceflight-developed technologies for rapid viral detection in saliva have been employed in clinics and hospitals around the world.

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology

The Race to the Moon Starts in the Classroom

China’s gambit to land on the Moon at the dawn of the year seemed to kick off a flurry of speculation as to whether a new race to our nearest neighbor in space had begun. That audacious exploit no doubt antagonized our country, its allies, and the media into conjecture. What it really uncovered, though, is that deep space travel and experimentation is simmering among the world’s superpowers — and may show some advances this year.

After Apollo 12 left lunar orbit this image of the Moon was taken from the command module. Image via NASA.

It might sound fun calling it a ‘race’ but traveling to space is expensive, and no one entity is willing to risk anything but a deliberate approach to reaching space if it doesn’t yield a genuine scientific, military or financial outcome.

We, humans, are naturally curious — and we love to explore. Continuing in the footsteps of Columbus, Magellan, and Captain Cook is a natural calling for our race, and yet it has been almost 50 years since man first walked on the Moon. The United States has had six successful landings, with 12 astronauts putting boot prints in the lunar dust. Nowadays, we are entering an exciting new era where not only are some countries competing to return to the Moon to assert their hegemony but independent interests are working equally hard for commercial goals.

Indeed, our closest planetary neighbor is a place where territory could be claimed and plentiful resources mined for considerable profit. The building blocks are there to colonize the Moon and create a transportation system to take advantage of the low lunar gravity. The Moon is also an ideal launch pad to other destinations in the Solar System, and holds intriguing economic potential.

Still, the larger conversation shouldn’t fall on races, countries, and for-profit companies — it should fall squarely on preparing our current and next generation of students for the exploration of outer space beyond low-Earth orbit. It should focus on education, science, and exploration, towering above such petty grievances.

STEM studies speak broadly of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but each of those elements is crucial to a degree in modern-day Space Studies. Kids’ dreams of astronauts, space stations, satellites, and space travel are taught in programs emphasizing the political, economic, legal, commercial, scientific and technical challenges comprising this complex and rapidly changing discipline. In fact, most curriculums are designed to exceed the challenges typically associated with humankind’s exploration and usage of space and include space weapons, weather, spacecraft, and other transportation systems — literally, an abundance of STEM-related disciplines.

While we are on the cusp of space-related developments that really can help all of mankind, we would be best served by gathering to collaborate not only on science and space travel but also on education and training to best prepare tomorrow’s STEM leaders for service in a diverse, global society.

This is a guest contribution from Dr. Edward Albin, Program Director and Associate Professor of Space Studies for American Public University System’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

A year in space — it really changes your genes

The first results are in from the NASA Twins Study, and they’re pretty worrying.

Mark Kelly (left) and Scott Kelly (right), on Jan. 19, 2015. Image credits: Robert Markowitz / NASA.

Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly are both retired astronauts, veterans of NASA’s space program. The Kelly twins are the only identical twin astronauts in history, representing a unique opportunity to study the effects of spaceflight on the human body.

In November 2012, Scott was selected, along with Mikhail Korniyenko, for the so-called year-long mission (340 days in outer space), while Mark remained earthbound. It was the perfect opportunity for a comparative nature versus nurture study. Aside from Scott’s main mission, NASA wanted to see if any differences had emerged between the two. Thus, the Twins Study was born.

Several different research labs were given different missions regarding this analysis. Carrying out a thorough comparative study, especially when it comes to genetic profiling, is no easy feat. Science takes time, but after two years of research we finally have the first results, and they’re quite interesting.

Most of the changes were temporary. For instance, the telomeres on Scott’s chromosome had lengthened on his mission, but they shortened right back up in just 48 hours after he landed.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Telomeres” footer=””]

Telomeres are regions of repetitive molecules at the end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes. Think of them as the fringes at the end of a rug — and the rug are your chromosomes.

The telomeres themselves are protected by a complex of proteins, as well as by the RNA that telomeric DNA encodes. However, during chromosome replication, the enzymes that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of a chromosome, so in each duplication, the end of the chromosome is shortened.

Essentially, each repetition creates an imperfect copy of itself and, in time, the telomeres tend to become shorter and shorter as we age. They are replenished by an enzyme, telomerase reverse transcriptase.[/panel]

It’s not clear why Scott’s telomeres became longer in space, but it might be due to the very intensive physical regime he had to undertake, as well as the highly controlled diet he was subjected to. But this wasn’t the only difference.

The analysis found a spike in a group of cytokines in Scott’s blood just after his return to Earth that remained elevated for six months, signaling a minor inflammation. Scott’s gastrointestinal bacterial flora was also significantly different, and some helpful bacteria seemed to be absent.

However, the most intriguing (and concerning) aspect is that a full 7 percent of Scott’s genes still showed some sign after alteration six months after landing. It’s not clear exactly what caused these differences — additional results from the study are needed.

This enables us to better prepare for long-term space missions, but also raises significant question marks regarding the overall health of the people aboard these future missions.

Blood cells.

Cosmonaut blood reveals that our immune systems grind to a halt in space

Millions of years of evolution may have rendered us Earth-locked, a Canadian-Russian research team reports. Zero- and microgravity conditions seem to severely impair our immune systems’ ability to function, so much so that they’d struggle to deal with even minor viruses like that of the common cold.

Blood cells.

Image credits BagoGames / Flickr.

A team of Russian and Canadian researchers have analyzed the protein make-up in the blood of 18 Russian cosmonauts to get an idea of their immune system health. They report that the crew, who spent six months aboard the International Space Station, showed signs of significantly weakened immune systems that would struggle to deal even with minor pathogens.

No gravity, no service

“The results showed that in weightlessness, the immune system acts like it does when the body is infected because the human body doesn’t know what to do and tries to turn on all possible defense systems,” said Professor Evgeny Nikolaev of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and paper coresponding author.

Our bodies, like those of all other organisms on Earth, have been tailored by evolution to adapt to specific conditions. It makes perfect evolutionary sense to adapt to the place you’re living in, but humans are now trying to do something that no life before us ever tried — we want to leave the planet. That’s quite problematic since it takes us out of the set of conditions we’re designed to function in.

Environmental factors associated with spaceflight, most notably microgravity and radiation exposure, tend to mess up our bodies’ inner workings. Our metabolism, heat regulation systems, heart rhythm, muscle tone, bone density, vision, our respiratory systems, they all go a bit haywire once you take us off the planet.

It all adds up to take a toll. Astronauts who went on deep space or lunar missions were five times more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases than their counterparts who stayed in low orbit, or people who never left Earth (around 43% compared to under 10% for the latter). And that’s considering that astronauts are way fitter than the average Joe and have access to the best medical care available.

To get a better idea of how space travel impacts human physiology, the team looked at the level of 125 proteins in the blood of astronauts who spent six months aboard the ISS. Proteins underpin virtually all complex tasks inside the body, so by looking at their state in the blood researchers could infer the state of the crew’s immune systems. Samples were first taken from the cosmonauts 30 days before they left for the ISS to establish a baseline. To track changes in their immune systems, the team also took blood samples immediately after the cosmonauts returned to Earth, and seven days later. Individual proteins were counted using a mass spectrometer.

The results aren’t very encouraging at all

”When we examined the cosmonauts after their being in space for half a year, their immune system was weakened,” said Dr Irina Larina, the first author of the paper, a member of Laboratory of Ion and Molecular Physics of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

“They were not protected from the simplest viruses. We need new measures of disorder prevention during a long flight.

It doesn’t bode well for future explorers, as our immune system is what’s literally keeping us alive all day, every day. The effects were manageable, although severe, after only six months. But future missions are likely going to take much longer. A one-way trip to Mars, our closest viable candidate for a colony, would take around six to eight months — and colonists wouldn’t have the medical means and infrastructure available on Earth, meaning they’ll have to rely on their now weakened immune systems much more than the cosmonauts. So it can become a problem.

However, we can get to work on understanding and then address these changes before we start poking around the final frontier.

“We must understand the mechanism that causes disorders. If we find the pathways that are affected by the weightlessness, we will be able to find the target for the remedy and we’ll be able to offer new pharmaceutical products that will prevent these negative processes.”

The paper “Protein expression changes caused by spaceflight as measured for 18 Russian cosmonauts” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Boeing wants to beat SpaceX to Mars. Elon Musk: “Do it”

It’s just a statement, but it’s a pretty clear statement.

The journey to Mars just got a bit hotter. Image via NASA.

Since the early 2000s, several entrepreneurs have started to develop competitive spaceflight alternatives, breaking what was, until then, a state monopoly. A few companies have managed to bring on significant innovations and reduce costs for some operations, encouraging NASA and other similar organizations to rely on private services more and more.

Boeing and SpaceX are two such companies, both of which have earned the rights to transport U.S. crews to and from the space station using their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively. The two companies are in a healthy but heated competition, with Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg declaring at the Boeing-sponsored tech summit in Chicago in October 2016 that he wants to be the first one to send people to Mars.

“I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.”

Recently, Muilenburg repeated that claim on CNBC, adding that he has a concrete plan for a test flight in 2019.

“We’re going to take a first test flight in 2019 and we’re going to do a slingshot mission around the Moon.”

Unlike last year, when SpaceX CEO and mastermind Elon Musk remained silent, this new statement drew a reaction. “Do it,” Musk dryly wrote on Twitter.

The truth is, both Boeing and SpaceX are quite far from being able to send people to Mars. NASA has already granted Boeing more than $10 billion for development of the Space Launch System rocket, part of NASA’s deep space exploration plans including a manned mission to Mars. Muilenburg might say that’s bound to happen in 2019, but NASA basically admitted that it won’t, saying that a 2019 launch is a “best case” scenario, and a slip into 2020 is much more likely.

Boeing also needs much more funding from NASA, and the newly imposed leadership of Mike Pence adds even more uncertainty. So there are a lot of question marks around the project, but Boeing is making a clear statement. They want to dance, and SpaceX is ready to rumble — which is thrilling to see, really.

The two companies are in a feverish competition, vying to take humanity where no man has gone before. It’s the kind of competition which leads to progress, and it’s the kind of progress we can’t have enough of.

To both Musk and Muilenburg, I can only say one thing: “Do it.”

NASA: We just can’t afford to land humans on Mars

NASA has talked about sending humans to Mars for a long time but the elephant in the room was just now addressed: there’s simply not enough money for it.

NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, in 2015. Image credits: NASA.

Great ambitions, little support

NASA has been discussing a manned mission to Mars for a long time, but in recent years, clear lines were drawn. But despite such plans and several breakthroughs, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William H. Gerstenmaier, said that at its current budget, the space agency simply can’t afford such a mission. Speaking at a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (see video here), Gerstenmaier was blunt.

“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” said NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier, responding to a question about when NASA will send humans to the surface of Mars. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

It makes a lot of sense, but it’s a perspective NASA has glossed over in past statements. In 2014, the agency expressed its intention to “to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s” — none of which seem feasible at the moment. Earlier this year, in Mach, they underline the same intention: “NASA is on a journey to Mars, with a goal of sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. That journey is already well under way.” Plenty doubted NASA’s optimism. For instance, a National Research Council report warned that there’s simply much work and not enough funds, and even a mission in the 2040s would be very difficult to achieve.

NASA might just not have the finance for a Mars mission. Image credits: NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch.

What Gerstenmaier said blows everything wide open. Of course, as a state funded agency, NASA is at the mercy of political moods and budgetary restraints, and even partnerships with private enterprises such as Boeing and SpaceX can only get you so far. Great ambitions require great support, and NASA just isn’t getting that support.

A consolation prize

At this point, it seems hard to say whether a mission to Mars is on the table for the near future. When your head of human spaceflight speaks against your public statements, something is clearly not clicking. For now, it seems that we’ll have to settle for satellites and rovers — though that’s a remarkable achievement in and of itself.

However, if Mars is not in the works, a new generation of Moon missions might be. This approach was supported by the Bush administration, but under the two Obama terms, the focus shifted on Mars. Now, a lunar surface program seems to be plausible once again.

“If we find out there’s water on the Moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the Moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.”

Even that would be a massive challenge under today’s circumstances.

Alternatively, we could leave private companies spearhead these efforts, and have NASA focus on other things. Both Boeing and Blue Origin are also planning to put humans on Mars, and while it may be a downgrade for NASA, it would still be human progress. China and the European Union have already announced plans to build a Moon Village together — it’s unclear if NASA could join in, or if they would have to develop a separate project. Either way, a key role will be played by US Vicepresident Mike Pence, who has been assigned to chair a committee that oversees NASA. There’s some special irony in having Pence, a staunch creationist who believes ‘God created heavens and the Earth’ decide the future of space exploration.

Space Race 2.0: Japan wants to put a man on the Moon by 2030

In an unprecedented announcement for the country, Japan announced that they want to put a man on the Moon by 2030.

The Moon seems closer than ever. Image via Wikipedia.

It’s the first time Japan’s space agency (JAXA) has expressed an intention to send a person beyond the International Space Station. The plan was announced at an education ministry panel this week. There are no official blueprints or details about how they will go about doing this. According to the public broadcaster NHK, this will be announced next year.

However, unlike the US, who did all this by itself during the initial Space Race, Japan wants to first join a NASA-led mission in 2025 to build a space station in the moon’s orbit, and then send an astronaut to the Moon from there. Not to take anything from them, but given the expected construction of the Moon space station, the technological challenges would be greatly reduced.

Still, one can only be happy about what seems to be a new space race in Asia. JAXA also announced they want to land a rover on the Moon by 2018, a mission that is expected to cost around $100 million. Two years ago, JAXA also sent an orbiter to Venus, sending fresh images of the planet. This man-on-the-moon announcement comes right after China and India have both announced ambitious plans. In November, China’s Shenzhou-11 spacecraft returned to Earth, bringing home two astronauts from the country’s longest space mission. China has also revealed illustrations of the new Mars Rover they want to send to the Red Planet by 2020.

Meanwhile, India recently became the first country to successfully send a shuttle to Mars’ orbit (and did so extremely cheaply) and launched a record-breaking 104-satellite rocket. It’s exciting to see Asian countries getting more involved in the space race, but the US also isn’t sitting by idle. Instead, NASA has its eyes on new heights: a manned mission to Mars in 2033.

Elon Musk shares his view of Mars colonization: one million people living in a self sustainable city

Like many other ambitious people, Elon Musk wants humanity to become a multi-planetary civilization. He’s made no secret of his dream of sending colonists to Mars during his lifetime, but now, his vision is becoming a bit less abstract and a bit more concrete.

Musk, pictured talking at the International Astronautic Congress 2016 event. Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Mr. Musk’s view, as it often is the case, is audacious. But he wants to make the audacious possible — and even more than that, he wants to make it common.

“I want to make Mars seem possible to do in our lifetimes,” said Musk in his presentation (you can watch a replay of the talk here). “I want anyone to go if they want to.”

Of course, when we can barely scrape the resources for any manned mission to Mars, colonization seems outside the realm of possibility. But then again, many of the things Musk did seemed the same way, initially. We now have cheap, reusable rockets which go a long way towards making space flight more accessible. He’s making space tourism a reality by sending people to the Moon, and he’s also planning to revolutionize trains — which have remained largely unchanged for almost a century. Why should Mars be any different?

Why Mars

The first question is: why Mars?

An artistic depiction of a Mars colonist. Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Many people believe humanity’s future is looking increasingly dire. With overpopulation and climate change, our planet’s resources are more and more strained, and at one point, they might simply be insufficient. I mean, we’re using them unsustainably today, so they’re technically not efficient even now, but this is expected to become more and more of a problem as time moves on.

So if we have to go somewhere, why not go for the Moon? It’s closer and we’ve been there before, so it should be easier.

Well, Musk argues, the Moon doesn’t really count as a planet. It doesn’t have any atmosphere whatsoever, it’s relatively poor in resources, and its gravity is six times weaker than that of the Earth (compared to Mars, which is just three times smaller). Furthermore, going on the Moon doesn’t really make you a multi-planet civilization.

“I think it is challenging to become multi-planetary on the moon because it is much smaller than a planet,” Musk wrote. “It does not have any atmosphere. It is not as resource-rich as Mars. It has got a 28-day day, whereas the Mars day is 24.5 hours. In general, Mars is far better-suited to ultimately to scale up to be a self-sustaining civilization.”

Reducing costs

So far, the main thing Musk has done in terms of space exploration is to reduce costs — by a lot. But there’s still a long way to go before we get down to a realistic figure. Musk says that with an “Apollo-style” approach, you’d end up with an “optimistic cost” of about $10 billion per person. You can’t build a civilization with that price tag. In fact, he’s aiming for $200,000 — the median cost of a house in the US. Of course, it’s still not clear how we’re going to get there.

“It is a bit tricky because we have to figure out how to improve the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent,” Musk cheekily commented.

He can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk? Image credits: Elon Musk/SpaceX.

Step by step, the price is steadily going down. We’re not nearly close to a colony trip to Mars, but the progress is happening at a remarkable place. Still, big challenges still remain. First, we’d have to deal with rocket reusability — and there is significant, concrete progress in this direction. Sure, you’d need different kind of rockets than the ones currently in use, but you’d mostly apply the same principle at a larger scale. Then, you’d have to refuel the shuttle in orbit, which SpaceX (Musk’s company) is also working on. Thirdly, you’d have to produce the fuel on Mars, so that you don’t have to ship it from Earth. This would drastically reduce the payload and the associated costs. The entire feasibility of the project might rely on this, and we have very little idea how to do it.

This is just discussing the space flight aspect of things, let alone the livability and potential terraforming that a city on Mars would require.

If everything goes according to plan, the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) would carry 1,000,000 people to Mars; not at once but in transports of 10,000, in 40 to 100 years. Musk envisions a “fun” trip, with zero-gravity games and attractions for the colonists.

The Space Merchants

In the 1950s, Sci-Fi writers Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl envisioned a dystopic future in which humanity decides to colonize Venus. The world’s best marketers and publicity-makers were employed to make Venus, a hot horrid hell, attractive to colonists. Is this what we’re looking at here? Is this all marketing glitter and misleading flashes, or does Musk plan do what it says on the tin?

Musk is, as always, extremely aggressive in his plans and in his timings. He greatly relies on technology that hasn’t even been invented, but might foreseeably emerge in a few years. It also might not.

The thing is… we don’t really know how this will play out. We might look back on his vision and say that it ignited everything, or we might simply forget it through the shroud of history. But these are not words spoken in vain. If anyone has the drive and the resources to pull something as crazy as this, it’s Musk. Whether or not he succeeds, someone will succeed, and that someone will have this kind of attitude.

“There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot,” he wrote. “There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible.”

You can read the full paper describing Musk’s plan, published in the journal New Space, by clicking here.

This is why space armor is becoming more important

The European Space Agency recently shared this image of a tiny, 10-cm object that can wreak havoc in even the strongest space armor we have.

ESA space debris studies, an impact sample. This is the kind of damage even a small projectile can cause. Image credits: ESA.

There is a growing concern regarding the sheer number of random objects in outer space, be they natural or man-made. Needless to say, all these objects pose a great risk to spacecraft, because they typically travel at extremely high velocities. For instance, an object just 10 cm across would inflict catastrophic damage and potentially cause the disintegration of the target. This happens due to the extremely high velocities at which they travel, which can reach 15 km/s for space debris and 72 km/s for meteoroids. Just so you can make an idea, bullets almost never go above 400 meters per second, so debris travels about 37 times faster than a bullet.

Even extremely small objects can have a major impact. Recently, the ISS’ Cupola — the dreamy vantage point which astronauts use to take amazing pictures — was chipped by a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across. The problem is not only the impact itself but also that the speed of these rogue objects causes additional shockwaves which further the damage. The ESA explains:

“Beyond 4 km/s (depending on the materials), an impact will lead to a complete break­up and melting of the projectile, and an ejection of crater material to a depth of typically 2–5 times the diameter of the projectile. In hypervelocity impacts, the projectile velocity exceeds the speed of sound within the target material. The resulting shockwave that propagates across the material is reflected by the surfaces of the target, and reverses its direction of travel. The superimposition of progressing and reflected waves can lead to local stress levels that exceed the material’s strength, thus causing cracks and/or the separation of spalls at significant velocities.”

This was caused by “possibly a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimetre across,” writes the ESA.

It’s counterintuitive, but big objects aren’t really as problematic as small objects. Larger objects can be tracked and studied and perhaps avoid — or at the very least, we can prepare for it. But smaller objects are virtually untraceable and can be quite surprising, striking out of nowhere. According to NASA, there are millions of pieces of debris or ‘space junk’ orbiting Earth. Recently the ESA shared its latest figures according to which there are around 5,000 objects larger than 1 meter in orbit, 20,000 larger than 10cm, and 750,000 larger than 1cm. All these pose a risk for all spacecraft, which is why researchers are trying to develop better and safer armor. Notably, the ESA is working on Whipple shields with aluminium and Nextel–Kevlar bumper layers.

Whipple shields are quite clever in their approach. They consist of a relatively thin outer bumper spaced some distance from the main spacecraft wall. This will cause a bumper which is not expected to stop the particle or even remove most of its energy, but rather to break it and disperse its energy, dividing the original particle into many fragments, spread across a greater surface. Intermediate fabric layers further slow the cloud particles. The original particle energy is spread more thinly over a larger wall area, which is more likely to withstand it. Nowadays, Whipple shields have reached a stage of maturity, so they’ll likely be incorporated into the next generation of spacecraft — potentially even SpaceX shuttles.

A 7.5 mm-diameter aluminium bullet was shot at 7 km/s towards the same ‘stuffed Whipple shield’ design used to protect the ATV and the other International Space Station manned modules. Image credits: ESA.

Future research will try to further our understanding of such impacts, because the risks get higher every day. If we want to start exploring Mars or other areas of the solar system, or even if we just want to secure Earth’s orbit for future spacecraft, armor is key. With every piece of spacecraft and satellite we launch. the risks get higher.

Celebrating the 55th Anniversary of Alan Shepard’s Suborbital Flight

An article by Steven B. Newman, Ph.D., Faculty Member, School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at American Public University

Ask most Americans which three astronauts they remember most, and the answers you’ll likely get are Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Jim Lovell. Armstrong, of course, was the first person to walk on the moon in July of 1969. Glenn is the first American to orbit the earth in February of 1962. And Jim Lovell gained fame as the Commander of Apollo 13 in April of 1970 — a mission that nearly ended in disaster.

Alan Shepard prepares for his historic flight on May 5, 1961. Credit: NASA

But the astronaut that many people should remember, but often don’t, is Alan B. Shepard, Jr. Shepard was the first American in space, completing a 15-minute mission, 55 years ago today on May 5, 1961. Shepard’s flight, while it did not place him into orbit, remains a significant milestone in the history of the American spaceflight program. It catapulted the United States back into the “Space Race,” less than one month after the Soviet Union had sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Gagarin’s flight had embarrassed the United States and forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to play catch-up with the Soviets.

The “Alan Shepard: First American in Space” stamp is the first U.S. postage to honor a specific astronaut. (USPS)

Shepard was among the first group of astronauts, the “Mercury 7,” chosen by NASA for the manned space program. The others were Malcolm S. (“Scott”) Carpenter, Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, John H. Glenn, Walter M. Schirra and Donald K. (“Deke”) Slayton. Today, only John Glenn remains alive, having become (at age 77) the oldest man to travel in space as a member of the STS-95 space shuttle Discovery mission in October of 1998.

In preparation for the first flight, NASA decided to train only three of the astronauts–Shepard, Glenn and Grissom — so the others could prepare for future orbital missions (Swenson, et. al., 1989). The flight was scheduled for May 2, 1961, but was scrubbed due to bad weather. Another weather delay caused the mission to be rescheduled to May 5th.

There was a considerable amount of trepidation as the launch date approached. To begin with, the Redstone rocket that would carry Shepard on his suborbital flight had never been tested with a human aboard. The original plan was that Shepard would only be a “passenger,” along for the ride. There wasn’t supposed to be anything for him to do but report on what he saw out the window, and what he felt during the few minutes of weightlessness he would experience. However, the astronauts lobbied NASA for some opportunity to maneuver the Mercury capsule during the flight, and NASA finally agreed to allow some basic pitch, yaw and roll maneuvers.

Other potential problems included possible malfunctions on re-entry. While the retrorockets on the spacecraft were technically not needed on this flight (the capsule had been launched on a ballistic missile trajectory, which would bring it back down no matter what), they were going to test the retros anyway. If they did not function as expected, it would result in delays for the upcoming missions.

As we know now, Shepard performed the capsule maneuvers flawlessly and the retrorockets fired as planned. There was only one more suborbital mission after Shepard’s. That was Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 flight, which concluded with the capsule sinking in the ocean after Grissom had climbed out. But that’s a story for another time.

In 1964, Shepard was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, an inner-ear syndrome which causes dizziness, nausea and vertigo. He was removed from flight status until 1969, when a new medical procedure cured him of the problem. In 1971, he commanded the Apollo 14 lunar mission, becoming the fifth (and oldest, at age 47) person to walk on the moon. Shepard died of leukemia in 1998, at the age of 74.

Why was Shepard’s flight so significant? First, it proved that the Mercury technology was reliable. Second, it became the first step towards reaching the moon. In fact, less than three weeks later, on May 25th, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy committed the United States to a lunar landing before the end of 1969. The Space Race was officially on.


Swenson, L.S., Grimwood, J.M. and C.C. Alexander, 1989, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. Retrieved from http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4201/toc.htm, 14 February, 2016.

About the Author

Dr. Steven B. Newman received his B.S. in Meteorology from the City College of N.Y. in 1973, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Atmospheric Sciences from SUNY at Albany, NY in 1975 and 1978, respectively.