Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Uranus: One Planetary System To Fuel Them All?

Orbiting almost 3 billion kilometers away from the Sun, Uranus is an ice giant that gathers little attention from the creatures that currently rule Earth.

Except for being used as the butt of astronomy jokes, the lopsided wonder gathers little press (if any at all), often being overlooked by both Saturn and Neptune.

Although the blueish-green giant may lack large lunar children like Titan and Triton (not to mention a set of dazzling rings), Uranus may be the key that enables humanity to not only conquer the outer limits of our own solar system, but perhaps enable us to reach the next one as well.

Even though Uranus contains a considerable amount of methane (located in the stratosphere), many scientists suspect that the cold ice giant may contain up to 16 trillion tons within its atmosphere, which may make it a prime target energy corporations (not to mention space faring nations of the future).

Often seen as the future of fusion power, Helium-3 could be the fuel that allows interstellar ships to trek through the dark void in between the star systems.

While scientists suspect an abundance of Helium-3 on the Moon, sifting through millions of tons of lunar regolith may not appeal to many people--especially as one would have to compete with other lunar businesses (like tourism) who may have other uses for the white "soil" beneath their feet.

Since claiming land (or atmosphere) on Uranus would be nearly impossible (unless one is able to set foot on the Uranian core), an orbiting space station would be free to collect the precious element, without the need to haggle neighbors with lawyers (or petition the government to take away property via eminent domain).

Despite its massive size when compared to Earth, Uranus's gravity is only 89% Earth norm (at least at the top of the atmosphere) which means that humans may be able to create floating space stations within the atmosphere of Uranus, without the fear of being crushed by its gravitational forces.

Although other gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn also have an abundance of helium-3, respectively, their deep gravity wells and strong winds would make mining the resource from the atmospheres incredibly dangerous (if not suicidal).

While Uranus's heftier brother, Neptune would also be a potential source for helium-3, its violent winds may also dissuade would be helium minors from sending robotic probes beneath its icy blue clouds.

Uranus's wind speeds on the other hand are a lot more tolerable, which may enable robotic probes (as well as future explorers) to travel beneath its clouds without the fear of being torn apart by Earth sized hurricanes.

Although it may be a century (or two) before we see humanity develop the technology (as well as the political will) to eventually reach this distant ice giant, it may not be surprising to see Uranus become the OPEC of the solar system, providing enough energy to not only keep lights on, but also to propel our species towards the next star system.

Japanese, Indian Space Alliance Is Making China Nervous?

Despite the fact that neither of these countries have launched a human into orbit, both Japan and India have successfully launched satellites around the Moon, respectively.

While China has also launched a lunar satellite (not to mention conducted a space walk), they seem to fear an alliance between the two rival nations, one that seems to benefit the US and put the Asian giant at a disadvantage.

(Asia Times) India and Japan's agreement in October to expand cooperation between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in the field of disaster management, has the raised the ire of a China fearful that the US is masterminding a powerful space alliance between its allies in the region.

All of Asia wants to see improved regional disaster management capabilities, but the growing ties between ISRO and JAXA come just as India and Japan are devising an action plan to advance security cooperation.

"China is concerned about the general effort of the US during the Bush Administration to form a Japanese-Indian alliance to contain China," said Dr Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager at the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

One may wonder why this alliance would make China nervous since they have already created a similar alliance with Russia, as well as offered to train astronauts from other countries.

Even though China probably fears a military alliance between India and Japan, they may also be worried that an alliance between the two Asian giants could knock China from its current status the space super power in the region.

Such an alliance could also convince other space faring democracies (such as the US and most of Europe) to work together, leaving Aristocracies like Russia and China to fend for themselves in the vacuum of space.

Whether or not the US will actively partner with Japan and India has yet to be seen, but either way it looks as if America may have found a way to counter the rising space power by reaching out to China's rivals.

Drinking Coffee In Micro Gravity (Minus The Bag)

(Hat Tip: Lunar News Network)

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures in space is micro-gravity. While the lack of terrestrial pull can make your heart sing, the environment is not exactly great for your immune system, bones or muscles (and yes, that includes your heart as well).

While scientists may have devised ways to counter the effects of micro-gravity on the body via drugs and electrodes, no one seems to have thought about the creature comforts of drinking coffee without the aid of space bag--until now.

While the fact that one can enjoy a hot cup of coffee (or tea) without a straw will appeal to millions of Starbucks fans, this technology could easily be adapted for medical doctors who may need to hook up a patient with an IV bag.

Unless future space stations find a way to develop artificial gravity, future colonists may end up using these micro-gravity cups throughout our solar system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Carnival Of The Space Geeks (One Astronomers Noise)

Last week's Carnival of Space was hosted by Nicole over at One Astronomer's Noise.

Interesting posts ranged from "haunted noises" from Saturn to exo-solar planets (note: video included) to even reasons why Obama (and the space community) should delay "big space projects" for a season.

A few articles readers might enjoy include:

Thanks for reading, and be sure to read the rest of the articles from the Carnival of Space, and if you are considering on submitting a post for this weeks upcoming Carnival be sure to visit Universe Today for detaiils on how to enter.

Video: Off Road "Tweeling?" (For The Moon And Mars)

(Hat Tip: Potentia Tenebras Repellendi)

The one thing that may separate a thriving lunar outpost (or on any world) from a dying one is transportation. While scientists and engineers may be able to figure out how to create lunar roads using the Moon's soil, they will  need to reinvent the wheel (note: pun intended) when it comes to tires.

Fortunately it looks as if Michelin has already designed a tweel (which is a cross between a tire and a spoke wheel) for lunar rovers, which will enable rovers to travel the lunar terrain at fairly high speeds.

(Moon Today) Based on the award-winning MICHELIN TWEEL assembly, the MICHELIN Lunar Wheel maintains flexibility and constant ground contact pressure that enables moon rovers to traverse loose soil and lunar craters. The MICHELIN Lunar Wheel has a low mass yet maintains a high load capacity that is 3.3 times more efficient than the original Apollo Lunar Rover wheels.

The wheel structure, developed by Michelin, employs Michelin-patented composite materials. Its textile tread, developed in conjunction with Clemson University and Milliken and Company, enables moon rovers to maintain traction at very low temperatures.

"This new technology not only applies to lunar missions, but may also be directly leveraged into other mobility applications requiring light-weight and low rolling resistance," said Stafford. "It's an exciting advance for mobility in space and here on Earth."

Although Michelin's goal is to aid lunar rovers, this technology would also appeal towards future Martian rovers (and settlers) as it would reduce the need for extra spares (in case one of their tires is damaged beyond repair).

Unless future settlers of other airless worlds (such as Callisto, Ganymede and Triton) develop hovercrafts, Michelin's invention could easily become the standard space wheel for our solar system.

NASA: Oxygen Drilling Rovers, Please!

Even though the Moon may lack an abundance of water on (or even under) its surface, Earth's little sibling does have one element critical to our survival off world--oxygen.

Since most of this oxygen is locked away in lunar rock, NASA is planning on using moon rovers to not only drill into the moon rock, but to produce oxygen from its surface as well.

(NASA) NASA's lunar exploration plan currently projects that on-site lunar resources could generate one to two metric tons of oxygen annually. This is roughly the amount of oxygen that four to six people living at a lunar outpost might breathe in a year. The field demonstrations in Hawaii showed how lunar materials might be extracted. It also showcased the hydrogen reduction system used to manufacture oxygen from those materials and how the oxygen would be stored. These experiments help engineers and scientists spot complications that might not be obvious in laboratories.

A prototype system combines a polar prospecting rover and a drill specifically designed to penetrate the harsh lunar soil. The rover's system demonstrates small-scale oxygen production from regolith. A similar rover could search for water ice and volatile gases such as hydrogen, helium, and nitrogen, in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon's poles. Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh built the rover, which carries equipment known as the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction.
While developing rovers to convert oxygen from moon rock (even in small amounts) is great, NASA may want to rethink the whole drilling approach, as it may be cheaper to use a lunar vacuum (as replacing bits may become expensive after awhile).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Solar Shades For Mercury Outposts?

(Image: The James Webb Space Telescope's sunshield outstretched. Credit: NASA / Northrop Grumman)

Of all the worlds humanity world humanity has yet to conquer, Mercury will probably be one of the toughest to conquer.

With surface temperatures reaching as high as 427 degrees Celsius (or about 800 degrees Fahrenheit), the future of any Mercury outpost looks to be either underground and/or nocturnal (which would probably make this planet an attractive place for penal colonies).

Since living underground (or even inside an outpost) may not attract the masses towards the planet, scientists may need to "revamp" solar shades from space telescopes in order to allow residents to explore the world during the Mercurian day (which is about 29 Earth days long).

(ESA Space Science) Imagine sunglasses that can withstand the severe cold and heat of space, a barrage of radiation and high-speed impacts from small space debris. They don't exist, but the sunshield for the James Webb Space Telescope, JWST, has been designed for just that. [...]

Any satellite that flies in the depths of space has to be able to withstand the rigors of space, from the icy cold to the intense heat and radiation of a solar flare. Temperatures in space can range from a hot 400 K (127°C) to a frigid 30 K (-243°C). In addition, the telescope's sunshield will be bombarded with tiny meteorites (sand-like grains) and radiation in space, so it has to be tough. It has to stand up against those things, as well as tension and aging under the extreme space environments.
Hopefully scientists can find a way to adapt this technology for "space windows" and helmet visors, as it will will enable colonists to view and roam the surface of Mercury without being blinded by the suns rays.

Even though Mercury may not be as colorful or attractive as some of the other worlds in our star system, the first rock from the sun may could easily replace Mars as humanities "next step" (after the Moon) due to the amount of potential resources that may be located there.

Mars: Locating Ice Water In All The Right Places (Technology)

(Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Russian Federal Space Agency)
When it comes to water, Mars probably holds more than any other terrestrial body (at least as far as safely retrieving goes).

While the red planet does hold an abundance of water beneath its surface (not to mention the north and south poles), locating the ice rich regions may determine how successful a future outpost will be on the crimson world.

Fortunately it looks as if scientists may have found a way to locate areas wealthy in ice water simply by "bouncing" neutrons off of the Martian soil.

(Astrobiology Magazine) Detecting water underground does not require a magical stick. Neutrons reflecting out of the soil can indicate the presence of water or ice. A novel instrument that can detect those neutrons is planned for NASA's next rover mission to Mars. [...]

"It is like striking a billiard ball with the cue ball," Boynton said. "If you hit it directly on center, all of the energy of the cue ball (the neutron in this case) will be transferred to the billiard ball (the hydrogen atom)."

The net result is that a neutron is stopped or slowed when colliding with hydrogen. Presumably, most of the hydrogen atoms on a planet surface will be part of a water molecule.

"Water will both thermalize (slow down) and absorb neutrons, so the reflected neutron signal will be higher in thermal (low-energy) neutrons and lower in epithermal (high-energy) neutrons," Boynton explained.

Dry soil, by contrast, will reflect more high-energy neutrons. This is because it will contain predominantly heavier atoms, which act like bowling balls that barely budge when a cue ball hits them. Neutrons striking iron or silicon atoms, rather than hydrogen atoms, will ricochet with practically the same energy that they started with.
Even though we can use satellites to locate ice water from space, their results are not as accurate (as according to the article their signal can only penetrate one meter below the surface).

If promising regions can be located, NASA (and others) could then send robotic landers to drill through the surface, which will make it easier for future colonists to simply collect and filter the Martian water once they arrive.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Carnival Of The Space Geeks (Simostronomy)

Last weeks Carnival of Space was hosted by Mike Simonsen over at Simostronomy.

Posts ranged from mourning over Phoenix's demise to the upcoming Space boom (note: I am looking forward towards that!) to even how to prepare for a "zero-G" flight.

A few articles of interest that readers might want to check out are:

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out the rest of the articles from the Carnival of Space! If anyone has any questions or comments about joining the next round, be sure to visit Universe Today for more details on how to enter.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Saturn's Titan: Where Rovers Fail, Hot Air Balloons May Prevail

(Hat Tip: Centauri Dreams, Image Credit: NASA)

To say one could easily explore the surface of Titan without descending below the clouds would be as silly as trying to fathom Earth's oceanic depths without using machines to probe the deep.

If Titan is destined to be a future home for humanity, then we are going to have to find a way to accurately explore its surface.

Since exploring its surface via satellite may be useless due to the methane moon's "jelly insides," we may have to explore it via hot air balloon in order to map out this orange hazy moon.

(Titan and Saturn Future Exploration) We are now in the phase of describing our study of the past year for a return to Titan and the Saturnian System in extensive reports that will allow the science committees appointed by the agencies to evaluate the interest and feasibility of the mission. The JSDT, and the NASA, JPL and ESA engineers have been working hard on putting together these reports and on defining the science, as well as the measurement requirements related to our ambitious mission, which comprises a dedicated Titan orbiter, and two in situ elements : a hot-air (Montgolfière) balloon and a lander. The balloon is to fly over Titan’s mid latitudes at 10 km altitude for about 6 months, while a short-lived probe will land in a north-polar lake. The CNES French Agency has committed to supplying a large part of the balloon, and is actively studying the Montgolfière. For the lander, the flourishing heritage from Huygens is putting us in a strong, comfortable position.

Although some may suggest that we simply deploy another rover (as that will give us a ground view of things), and future machine with wheels my find itself getting stuck due to the chemical nature of Titan's sand grains.

A hot air balloon would probably be a better alternative, as it would not only give us a birds eye view of the region, but enable us to measure what Titan weather is like in the sky (as future colonists will probably construct "nitrogen planes" in order to transport goods across the surface).

Update: Corrected random link color error in blockquote.

Finally! Magnetic Shields For Space Ships (And Colonies Too)

(Hat Tip: Potentia Tenebras Repellendi, Image Credit: Edited by, Original art work by Winchell Chung)

People often say that space is the final frontier. While our future may lie among the stars that shine from above, humanity will forever will be pondering the distant celestial lights if our species can not find a way to deal with the deadly radiation that drifts throughout our star system.

Fortunately it looks as if scientists from the United Kingdom may be on the edge of creating artificial magnetic bubbles after announcing their plans of developing this technology last year.

(Telegraph) The idea of a "mini-magnetosphere" has been around since the 1960s but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large - more than 100km wide - magnetic bubble could possibly work. This would involve enormous amounts of energy and massive machinery.

But the British team, which published its results in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, has come up with a system that would be about the size of a playground roundabout and use the same energy as a kettle.

They envisage two "mini-magnetospheres" being housed in two outrider satellites in front of the space craft that when a storm approaches would switch on the shield and deflect the deadly rays.
While this would tremendously benefit future astronauts traveling throughout our star system, it would also enable us to safely establish large outposts on the Moon, Mars and Ganymede (as Callisto, Titan, Earth and a few Saturan moons are the only radiation safe worlds within our star system).

It may also enable us to bring along all of our animal and insect friends (like bees), instead of having to rely upon creatures who may not need Earth's magnetic influence in order to carry out critical functions (one example being ants).

Note: Since creating these mini magnetic fields will probably require a lot of energy, we will probably  have to use a miniature nuclear reactor to provide enough power to keep the radiation out (and the life support on).

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Carnival Of The Space Geeks (Plus Death Of A Space Dream?)

Last weeks Carnival of Space was hosted by Tim Neale of Tomorrow Is Here which not only featured some interesting posts, but also killed this authors dream regarding a certain space technology (note: more of that below).

Articles readers should consider browsing include thoughts regarding the red planet's "semi-magnetic field," NASA partnering with Kentucky Space, interstellar beacons from E.T., and five items to pack on your way to Mars (note: check out reason number four).

The article that caused the most heart-ache was from the Space Cynics, who for an hour on The Space Show pretty much dissected the practicality of space solar power and (unfortunately) found it to be lacking economically.

(Space Cynics) Space Cynics Shubber Ali, Tom Olson (Tom's Rants), Dr. John Jurist (Old Space Cadet) and Dr. David Livingston (Professor L) engaged in a roundtable conference call Saturday morning, Oct. 25, 2008 to discuss space solar power. In keeping with true Space Cynics fashion, this was a hard-hitting discussion addressing some of the fundamental challenges facing SSP and why the Cynics do not share the joy of seeing a future SSP world as do those promoting it. As we started the discussion, Shubber outlined three basic areas that we addressed: technical challenges, economic and political (policy) challenges, and those challenges represented by substitute technology. All of us were in agreement that the technical challenges can be met over time and with sufficient funding and R&D. All the Cynics believe that substitute technologies here on Earth will typically give the economic and policy advantage to terrestrial power over SSP. Furthermore, the economic, political, and policy challenges ahead for SSP are formidable and likely to be much harder, complex, and costly to resolve than many of those promoting SSP believe will be the case.

Even though other countries like Japan might pursue creating space solar power satellites, other upcoming technologies (like geothermal power or even a Hyperion power nuclear reactor) may make space solar power irrelevant in the future (as far as the economics go).

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out the rest of the entries over at the Carnival of Space. For those of you seeking to submit your articles to the next round, be sure to visit Universe Today for details on how to enter.