Tag Archives: space travel

SpaceX has something major in the works, and we’re really excited

Normally, when people say they’re working on “the coolest thing ever”, we raise our eyebrows in skepticism; but when SpaceX says that… we give them the benefit of a doubt. I mean, they’re doing some pretty monumental things as it is, and when they are excited about something, we are excited about something.

Image via Elon Musk.

If you’re not aware what this company is and what they do, let me quickly put you up to date. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) is an American aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk with the goal of improving and refining sub-orbital travel and ultimately enabling the colonization to Mars. In other words, they now fly shuttles into sub-orbit and onto the International Space Station – the first ever private company ever to do so. But always, in the back of their minds, they have the idea that we should get to Mars.

The hint that something new and awesome is happening came from a Tweet released by Chris Bergin, the managing editor and founder of NASASpaceFlight, a reliable news site dedicated to space travel.

This comes right after Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, where he said that they’re already working for the transportation to Mars.

“The Mars transport system will be a completely new architecture,” he wrote on Reddit. “Am hoping to present that towards the end of this year. Good thing we didn’t do it sooner, as we have learned a huge amount from Falcon and Dragon.”

Several media outlets have asked SpaceX for comment but the corporation didn’t answer – but it seems quite logical to put the two together and reach the conclusion that there’s something about the new transportation system to Mars, they’re probably reaching a significant breakthrough. Sure, we may be overthinking and exaggerating things, but hopefully, we’re not.


UK project brings us closer to Mach5 air travel

Image via Reaction Engines.

If you thought research in airplanes only applies to the military, you’re wrong. While most of the money spent for airplane research does go to the military, a smaller chunk of it goes to space research, and another part goes to private air travel. Now, a company from the UK has almost developed an engine that would make the legendary Concorde look like a slowpoke – promising airplanes that could travel 5 times faster than the speed of sound.

The planes they are proposing look weird, to say the least. They’re very futuristic; they have no windows, have much smaller wings than you’d expect, and a really strange engine. But they are incredibly fast. At the recent Farnborough International Airshow, one of the largest aerospace trade gatherings in the world, Reaction Engines got most of the attention with their new research, which promises a paradigm shift.

“These engines are a step change in propulsion technology,” said managing director and chief engineer Alan Bond, in an interview with The Star. “So at a stroke, they make Mach 5 transport anywhere on the earth, for example, a possibility.”

In case you didn’t know, Mach is a term used to describe ratio of speed of an object moving through a fluid and the local speed of sound. In this case, the object is the plane, and the fluid would be the atmosphere – Mach5 means that the plane is flying 5 times faster than the speed of sound.

Reaction Engines is exploring a couple of different types of engines – one for supersonic passenger flights and another for satellite delivery. But they both share an innovative new feature: a sophisticated pre-cooler that can turn very hot air and make it cold almost instantly. As you can easily imagine, when flying at such incredibly high speeds, overheating is quite a big problem.

“When you’re flying at Mach 5, the air’s going to get very hot…it’s going up to 1000 degrees centigrade,” explained Bond, who is a rocket scientist. “Before you can put that into an engine you have to cool it. Liquid hydrogen is an extremely good coolant, so we use that in a complex way to cool the air, then compress it to put it into the engines.”

Nuclear power plants use the same kind of cooling – but in nuclear plants, the cooler weighs about 200 tons. In this plane, that figure goes down to 1.5 tons – quite an achievement. However, it will probably take a while before we get to actually see these planes put to commercial use. The company is mostly focusing its efforts on developing an engine capable of flying into space. Its proposed Skylon craft would carry payloads of up to 15 tons into low-earth orbit, meaning it could carry most satellites currently transported to space.

The proposed design of the Skylon vehicle, by Reaction Engines. Image via Reaction Engines.

“This is the only engine that we know of which is capable of realizing an aeroplane which can take off, fly into space, do a job, and come back and land. Then, a couple of days later do it all over again to a different orbit or whatever,” says Bond. “So that’s the excitement of it.”

It’s also worth noting that the extremely effective cooler took about 10 years of research to develop and actually create. It’s way past the design phase, it’s a reality.

NASA to conduct unprecedented twin experiment: one twin will spend a year circling the Earth, while the other stays grounded

It’s something that puzzled me for years now: consider a pair of identical twins; say, one gets a job as an astronaut and rockets into space. The other is also an astronaut, but he decides to skip this one and stay home. After a while, they reunite, but are they still identical? That’s exactly what NASA wants to find out!

In March of 2015, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will join cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko on a one-year mission to the International Space Station. Their lengthy mission is part of a study which will document the effects of long-term space flight on the human body. But here’s the cool part: Scott Kelly also has a twin brother, Mark Kelly – who is also an astronaut, albeit retired. We wrote about his retirement here. While Scott, the test subject, spends one year circling Earth onboard the ISS, his brother Mark will remain home as a control.

“We will be taking samples and making measurements of the twins before, during, and after the one-year mission,” says Craig Kundrot of NASA’s Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center. “For the first time, we’ll be able two individuals who are genetically identical.”

So what will they be studying? The ISS doesn’t go at high enough speed for an age difference to be noticeable (according to Einstein’s theory, if you travel at fast enough speeds, comparable to that of speed of light, time will slow down for you – so if this were to happen, one twin would be younger than the other). The main focus will be the subjects’ health.

“We already know that the human immune system changes in space. It’s not as strong as it is on the ground,” explains Kundrot. “In one of the experiments, Mark and Scott will be given identical flu vaccines, and we will study how their immune systems react.”

Another experiment will look at telomeres—little molecular “caps” on the ends of human DNA. Telomeres have been linked to aging, and in space, telomere loss could be accelerated by the action of cosmic rays. Researchers will study if space travel accelerates aging. Meanwhile in the gut, says Kundrot:

“There is a whole microbiome essential to human digestion. One of the experiments will study what space travel does to [inner bacteria] which, by the way, outnumber human cells by 10-to-1.”

Another study will focus on how vision changes in outer space, and on “space fog”—a lack of alertness and slowing of mental gears reported by some astronauts in orbit. But these aren’t separate studies – it’s just a big one with many aspects.

“These will not be 10 individual studies,” says Kundrot. “The real power comes in combining them to form an integrated picture of all levels from biomolecular to psychological. We’ll be studying the entire astronaut.”




People watch the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft which moves to the launch pad at the Jiuquan launch centre in Jiuquan, China's northwest Gansu province. Shenzhou-9 carried 9 astronauts (c) AP

China tests new rocket engine and slates moon landing for 2013

China is set on covering a lot of lost ground in its race of becoming a full fledged space super power, and its progress so far has been phenomenal. The latest news from the Chinese space agency comes in the wake of a successful test for a super-rocket engine, which will be deployed in the next-generation of boosters, and help the nation in its goals of building its own space station and landing on the moon. Speaking of which, Chinese officials have also recently announced  that it will blast off a lunar probe for the moon in the second half of 2013. If successful, the landing would be China’s first on the lunar surface and mark a new milestone in its space development.

People watch the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft which moves to the launch pad at the Jiuquan launch centre in Jiuquan, China's northwest Gansu province.  Shenzhou-9  carried 9 astronauts (c) AP

People watch the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft which moves to the launch pad at the Jiuquan launch centre in Jiuquan, China’s northwest Gansu province. Shenzhou-9 marked China’s fist successful docking in space, with the Tiangong-1 module. (c) AP

The new super-engine is based on  liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene, and has been designed for China’s planned Long March 5 rocket, which will be more powerful than the current Long March 2F that have been used to both deploy China’s test space station module, Tiangong-1, and transport a crew of three, including the nation’s first female astronaut, for a 13-day stay at the module.

The engine was subjected to rotational tests of almost 20,000 revolutions per minute, and was exposed to temperatures of up to 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius) for 200 seconds. It performed without flaws, much to the delight of Chinese officials. Also,  liquid oxygen and kerosene engine is non-toxic and pollution-free, according to officials. The engine  will be capable of 118 tons of thrust, compared to the 74-ton-thrust engines used on the Long March 2F rockets – this translates in around 25-ton payload carrying capability in satellite low-orbit, or 14-ton payload into geostationary orbit.

The Long March 5 is expected to aid in China’s efforts of deploying its own space station in orbit by 2020; efforts which so far have extremely promising, considering Tiangong-1 was a sound success and most of their projects have been deployed on schedule. The rocket’s maiden launch is expected to occur in 2014, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

Concerning its moon ventures, China has announced that it will launch a probe in the second half of 2012 destined to land on the surface of the moon – marking another milestone. The communist state has launched two other probes to the moon before,  Chang’e 1 in 2007 and Chang’e 2 in 2010, both named for the Chinese goddess of the moon, but these didn’t land. The new project is destined to orbit, land on and return from the moon. According to China’s current space mission schedule, a manned landing on the moon is expected by 2025.

Despite China is currently pursuing goals already completed by the US or the URSS some 50 years ago, the amount of progress it has made in the past decade alone is astonishing.


The inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) depicted here in an array of its states, either packed in a nose cone, unfurled in space or during plummeting at atmospheric re-entry. (c) NASA

Inflatable heat shield passes atmospheric re-entry test flawlessly

For the past couple of years NASA has been testing a new atmospheric re-entry system, designed to offer pods and capsules more stability and better degree of safety upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Just yesterday, the latest, the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3), was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia for its 20-minute test, which underwent point-on-point according to plan.

The  Inflatable Reentry system is not just a space balloon. The intricate technology is comprised of a cone made up of inflatable rings that are wrapped in layers of high-tech thermal blankets to protect it, and more importantly the capsule, from the searing heat of re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. About six minutes into the flight, as planned, the 680-pound inflatable heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle’s nose cone, about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

The inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) depicted here in an array of its states, either packed in a nose cone, unfurled in space or during plummeting at atmospheric re-entry. (c) NASA

The inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) depicted here in an array of its states, either packed in a nose cone, unfurled in space or during plummeting at atmospheric re-entry. (c) NASA

Four cameras were attached aboard the IRVE-3 prototype, which recorded the launch’s progress, as well as the capsule’s plunge back to Earth. Instruments measured re-entry forces of around 20 Gs or 20 times the force of Earth’s gravity, during the capsule’s hypersonic speed of up to 6,000 mph (9,656 kph), along with temperatures over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 degrees Celsius).

“We had a really great flight today,” James Reuther, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, told reporters in a news briefing Monday (July 23). “Initial indications are we got good data. Everything performed as well, or better, than expected.”

While the system was perfectly demonstrated on Earth, the final goal of the re-entry technology is Mars. The atmosphere is much thinner there, but the necessary mass required for such a far away from home missions would also be impressive. Thus, an atmospheric entry system that is as light as possible, without hindering sheltering capabilities becomes quite appealing.

“As far as the applicability of the technology, [we were] originally motivated to do this to allow us to potentially land more masses at Mars,” said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at Langley Research Center. “Mars is a very challenging destination. It has a very thin atmosphere — too much of an atmosphere to ignore, but not enough for us to do the things we would at other planets. That was our motivation about nine years ago when we started doing this stuff.”

The new test is a follow-on to the successful IRVE-2, which showed an inflatable heat shield could survive intact after coming through Earth’s atmosphere. IRVE-3 was the same size as IRVE-2, but had a heavier payload and was subjected to a much higher re-entry heat, similar to what a heat shield might encounter in space.

“It’s great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator,” said James Reuther, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program. “This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space.”

Some day, in the next 100 years, Star Trek's Enterprise might pass to the realm of reality.

100 year starship program seeds the future for mankind

Some day, in the next 100 years, Star Trek's Enterprise might pass to the realm of reality.

Someday, in the next 100 years, Star Trek’s Enterprise might pass to the realm of reality.

This weekend one of the most fascinating symposiums of the year will take place in Orlando, Fla, where apparently “nut-case” scientists will seriously take key and discuss subjects like warp interstellar travel, terraforming planets in our solar system and beyond, as well as many other subjects taken off science fiction novels – for now, at least.

The event called the “100-Year Starship Symposium” and sponsored by NASA and DARPA, will host for three days scientists from universities, NASA centers and private institutions who will discuss far-out ideas for building a spaceship to visit another star.

It’s expected that next year, the Voyager-1 spacecraft will become the first man-made object to leave the solar system in an important milestone for mankind. To exit the solar system’s inner boundaries, however, the spacecraft had to travel more than 30 years since it left Earth.

The nearest known star to our solar system is Alpha Centauri, just four light years away. It’s evident, though, that a spacecraft traveling by conventional means will need a lot more than four years to reach its destination, it’s enough to study Voyager.

RELATED: Harvesting gas from Uranus might power interstellar flight

These are present limitations, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, like to look at the future otherwise, and such have pledged $1 million for funding of the 100-Year Starship Study, which involves contemplating technologies and organizational strategies that could enable an interstellar mission to launch within 100 years.

“The 100-Year Starship is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” DARPA officials wrote in a statement. “Through this effort, DARPA seeks to inspire several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations across myriad disciplines.”

Sure, $1 million might seem like a small sum, but considering the outworldly conference and tight budget, it’s still significant.  It’s enough to remember how small initial investments from NASA and DARPRA in the past have ultimately lead to incredible features we use on a 78 day to day basis, such as the internet and GPS technology.

Notable personalities from the scientific and science fiction community present at this weekend’s symposium include Jill Tarter from the SETI Institute and former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, as well as science-fiction authors such as Stephen Baxter, Robert J. Sawyer and Elizabeth Bear.

Electric Solar Wind Sail to Power Future Space Travel In Solar System

solar windTwo years ago, the Finnish Meteorological Institute made public the fact that they had created an electric solar wind sail. Now, scientists believe that this kind of propulsion could benefit space travel significantly, throughout the Solar System.

Doctor Pekka Janhunen who invented the sail, believes it could revolutionise travelling in space, as using solar winds for thrust requires no fuel or propellant. The solar wind is a continuous plasma stream emanating from the Sun.

“We haven’t encountered major problems in any of the technical fields thus far. This has already enabled us to start planning the first test mission,” says Dr. Pekka Janhunen.

They have also developed some new techniques of welding that allow them to have spinoff applications outside the electric sail.

“The electric sail might lower the cost of all space activities and thereby, for example, help making large solar power satellites a viable option for clean electricity production. Solar power satellites orbiting in the permanent sunshine of space could transmit electric power to Earth by microwaves without interruptions. Continuous power would be a major benefit compared to, e.g. ground-based solar power where storing the energy over night, cloudy weather and winter are tricky issues, especially here in the far North,” says Dr. Pekka Janhunen.

Space tourism – just 2 years away?

lynxRecently, a small Aerospace company located in California has announced a new type of sub-orbital spaceship that can make your dream come true; that is, if you’ve got the right amount of money and you want to travel into outer space. This spaceship is claimed to provideaffordable front-seat rides to the edge of space for the millions of people who want to buy a ticket.

The company, XCOR Aerospace, announced that it will be able to carry people or payloads to where they will experience weightlessness and see the stars above and the Earth and its atmosphere below. They company hopes that in this way it will “launch” itself into the already rising industry of space travel. Also, it’s supposed to be really not that expensive.

“The Lynx will offer affordable access to space for individuals, researchers and educators,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “Future versions of Lynx will offer ever-improving capabilities for scientific and engineering research and commercial applications. The spaceship, roughly the size of a small private airplane, will first take off in 2010 and will be capable of flying several times each day. We have designed this vehicle to operate much like a commercial aircraft. Its liquid fuel engines will provide the enhanced safety, durability, reliability and maintainability that keep operating costs low. These engines will also minimize the impact of these flights on the environment. They are fully reusable, burn cleanly, and release fewer particulates than solid fuel or hybrid rocket motors.”

They’ve been developing this technology for 9 years and it seems their work is close to paying off; the Lynx promises to bring the best ride on the face of the planet, in a metaphorical way of course. A price hasn’t been yet officially announced, so we’re quite eager to see what it will be. Also, they’re in the business of developing and producing safe, reliable and reusable rocket engines, rocket propulsion systems, and rocket powered vehicles.