Monday, March 23, 2009

Video: Could Skylon Jets Open Up The Final Frontier?

(Hat Tip: Skymania News)

Finding an inexpensive and effective way to travel beyond the heavens above has been the quest of humanity since the days of the Wright Brothers.

While some see space elevators as the key, it looks as if the British are placing their faith in air breathing Skylon jets.

(New Scientist) Unlike scramjets, Skylon is designed to run in air-breathing mode directly from launch up to a speed of Mach 5.5. At an altitude of 26 kilometres, the engine would switch to conventional rocket power and use onboard oxygen to propel the plane into space.

"It's a pretty unique concept," says Mark Hempsell, director of future programmes at Reaction Engines. "I think at the moment it's the only realistic way to make aircraft vehicles that go into space."

The design should be sufficient to power a 43-tonne plane that can loft 12 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit, about half what the space shuttle can carry, the firm says.

If successful, Skylon jets could not only help England leap frog ahead of the competition but also make space affordable for all.

While the Skylon alone will not help humanity become a space faring species, it may reduce the overall cost of traveling beyond the sky, making it easier for our species to construct orbital space stations (and perhaps even a modified space elevator, LockHeed style!).

Nitrogen Powered Rockets (For Titan, Triton And Pluto?)

(Image: A prototype of the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster. Credit: Donna Coveney / MIT)

Out "in the black" where the suns rays are much dimmer, future explorers will have to come up with innovative ways to travel to and from the gas giants, dwarf planets and the various moons that dance around their parent worlds.

While solar sails, magnetic sails and nuclear rockets could provide some measure of transport, they will probably be too expensive for the average star ship.

Since mining hydrogen directly from gas giants is suicidal due to their deep gravity wells and very fierce winds (with the only exception being Uranus), colonists beyond Jupiter may look towards nitrogen to solve their space transport needs.

(Space Travel) Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers say their new rocket -- called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster -- is much smaller than other rockets of its kind and could consume just one-tenth the fuel used by conventional systems. [...]

The scientists said the Mini-Helicon is the first rocket to run on nitrogen, the most abundant gas in Earth's atmosphere. Batishchev noted, however, it could be years before the technology can be used commercially.

While this technology will have some value on our home world, these nitrogen powered rockets may prove invaluable to worlds like Titan, Triton and Pluto who seem to be blessed with an abundance of nitrogen, respectively.

If future settlers could find ways to harvest this element from these worlds, then humanity may discover a means to travel not only throughout the outer planets, but perhaps beyond the Kuiper belt as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rechargable Batteries (For Off World Settlers)

Regardless of how humanity decides to power its off world settlements (whether by solar power, geothermal, solar steam, or even algae), they are going to need an efficient and quick way to transfer the energy to not only space habitats, but future rovers as well.

While NASA and Germany have come up with innovative ways at storing energy, respectively, it looks as if researchers from Massachusetts may have developed a way to recharge electrical batteries at lightening speeds.

(Times Online) Scientists in the United States have invented a battery that can charge in seconds, promising a revolution in power storage that could also help green cars and renewable energy.

The advance allows lithium-ion batteries, the standard variety used in consumer electronics and cells for electric or hybrid vehicles, both to charge and discharge stored energy more quickly than at present. [...]

"If you can charge your phone in 30 seconds, that becomes a life changer," said Gerbrand Ceder, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who led the research. "It could change the way we think about technology like this: you would literally be able to charge up while you stand and wait."
This technology could enable future colonists to create fleets of rovers to travel across the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, as well as Jupiter's lunar children (Ganymede and Callisto to be exact).

Settlers could construct electric charging stations to supply rovers en route to distant destinations, thereby enabling explorers to travel their world without fear of running out of energy.

While this technology has yet to be perfected (not to mention tested on Earth), it may help humanity expand across the various worlds that orbit around our golden star Sol.

Mars Probably Has Liquid Water (Too Bad Its Very Salty)

(Image: Salty water droplets on Phoenix Mars Lander. Credit: NASA) 

With temperatures plunging below -100 degrees (in both Fahrenheit and Celsius), Mars is not exactly known as warm and friendly place to live upon.

While the red planet does boast an abundance of ice, it looks as if scientists have discovered that liquid water can exist upon its surface--in an extremely salty form.

(SpaceRef) Temperature fluctuation in the arctic region of Mars where Phoenix landed and salts in the soil could create pockets of water too salty to freeze in the climate of the landing site, Renno says.

Photos of one of the lander's legs show droplets that grew during the polar summer. Based on the temperature of the leg and the presence of large amounts of "perchlorate" salts detected in the soil, scientists believe the droplets were most likely salty liquid water and mud that splashed on the spacecraft when it touched down. The lander was guided down by rockets whose exhaust melted the top layer of ice below a thin sheet of soil. [...]

The wet chemistry lab on Phoenix found evidence of perchlorate salts, which likely include magnesium and calcium perchlorate hydrates. These compounds have freezing temperatures of about -90 and -105 Fahrenheit respectively. The temperature at the landing site ranged from approximately -5 to -140 Fahrenheit, with a median temperature around -75 Fahrenheit. Temperatures at the landing site were mostly warmer than this during the first months of the mission.

Perchlorate salts are not exactly healthy for humans, and their presence on Mars comes with a double blessing.

While this means that future colonists may have an easier time storing water (at least in liquid form), it also means that it will have to be heavily filtered if humans (not to mention our animal friends) are to ever drink it.

Why Japan Needs To Embrace Human Spaceflight

(Hat Tip: Hobby Space)

Earlier this month, the land of the rising sun decided to reverse its robotic space policy and actually embrace the idea of sending flesh and blood to explore the heavens above.

(Mainichi Daily News) The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) wants "to have the technology for independent manned missions," President Keiji Tachikawa announced last month, in a reversal of Japan's policy against manned space exploration.

The plan on manned space missions was due to be mentioned in a meeting of an expert panel at the government's space development strategy headquarters on Friday. While not setting any specific time frame, it does call for a review of current policy on manned space missions as part of plans for the proposed Space Solar Power System (SSPS), and a future manned mission to the moon.

This is a smart (although late) move for Japan, who had to watch as their rival China conducted its first spacewalk (establishing the Asian giant as the dominant space power).

Although Japan has successfully launched a satellite around the Moon (in HD nonetheless), they need to place more emphasis on sending their own citizens into space, especially now that China is intent on building a military space station by the end of next year.

Unlike their silicon beasts that roam the heavens above, a human presence will help the Japanese establish a public claim to outer space (as robots can always be blasted out of the sky without raising too much public outrage).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Carnival Of The Space Geeks (Out Of The Cradle)

Note: After taking a mini break from blogging (at least upon my Blogger blogs), not to mention migrating to HostMonster from GoDaddy (which took a lot longer than expected as there were quite a few errors to resolve) Colony Worlds is back from the cone of silence!

To kick things off, here is the latest Carnival of Space from Ken Murphy of Out of the Cradle. Interesting articles highlighted the search for anti-matter galaxies to converting the dwarf world Ceres into an intergalactic radio to even a free lunar book to inspire the children future lunar explorers.

A few articles that readers here may enjoy include:

Be sure to visit the rest of the entries from the Carnival of Space, as well as check out the past carnivals over on Universe Today