Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Exciting possibilities in (and about) space!

First some exciting news about space-flight.  Then I'll finish with a followup (and speculative) reflection on our recent multiple encounters with space rocks.

== NASA's NIAC: New and Innovative Advance Concepts ==

Soon I will be off to participate as an advisor in the Spring meeting of NASA-NIAC in Chicago.  NIAC is a far-out, little research program at NASA, trying to enable big things. NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Its budget last year was $5.5M, or about 3/100ths of 1% of the $18 billion NASA budget. Its charter is to Change the Possible in aerospace. NIAC studies exciting, unexplored missions that won't be "ready for prime time" for a decade or more. Here are a few projects they funded last year, chosen at random:

681397main_lunar_construction_astronauts_226   •    A  researcher at USC is trying to "3-d print" whole buildings with quick drying concrete. Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with NIAC to see if it's possible to do this on the Moon or on Mars, using local soil, to build infrastructure in preparation for a future NASA mission.

•    NIAC has a researcher at Draper Labs, Kevin Duda, who is working on a space suit that would help astronauts feel a sense of "down" while in space for a long time. It might also help them exercise just by doing their regular movements. The suit has gyros on it that resist motion intelligently for that sense of "down".

•    Kendra Short at JPL is trying to print small spacecraft. Not 3-D printing, but rather flexible printed electronics, batteries, sensors, everything on a sheet of mylar or even paper. This could be used anywhere in the solar system to rapidly design and print useful electronics.

•    An interesting robotic rover is being designed with Mars in mind. Adrian Agogino is adapting tensegrity structures to make an inexpensive and durable rover, the Super Ball Bot, that you could simply drop down to Mars — no a parachute or airbags needed.

•    Here's an example of something NIAC is funding on life support systems: Michael Flynn is developing Water Walls, Redundant Life Support Architecture, a concept to put the waste water processing into the walls of a spacecraft so that the water and waste would protect against radiation, too.

RAP•    NIAC is funding a small asteroid mining study. With the Robotic Asteroid Explorer, Mark M. Cohen is trying to figure out if mining an asteroid could ever make real business sense. If so, what might be valuable to mine in space, and how could it be accomplished?

One of the coolest parts of NIAC is how open it is: info about all their studies is freely available at Also, they have their projects report out to the program office at public meetings, the NIAC Symposiums. The next is in Chicago from March 12-14th. See their website for details on the Spring Symposium.

== More Exciting space news == 

The next three years will feature truly astounding announcements regarding human spaceflight: half a dozen new commercial and potentially human-crewed space vehicles, including:

--XCOR Aerospace's Lynx suborbital space plane
--Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
--Armadillo Aerospace's Vertical Lander
--Stratolaunch's Air-Launched Rocket
--Blue Origin's Space Vehicle
--Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Space Plane

HedgehogA way cool concept that emerged from MIT, JPL and NASA NIAC... a Phobos mission (to replace the doomed Russian one) would start with an orbiter that then deploys several small "hedgehog" landers that fling themselves across the microgravity surface by sudden tilts driven by gyros and flywheels. I have long pushed for Phobos as a target.  It could very well be one of the most valuable sites in the solar system.

An electric sail produces propulsion power for a spacecraft by utilizing the solar wind (charged particles) instead of light. The sail features electrically charged long and thin metal tethers that interact with the solar wind. As illustrated in EXISTENCE. Now see plans for the real thing.

EmDrive, China's radical new space drive using microwaves that seems to violate Newton's laws by requiring no propellant mass?Professor William Napier and Dr. Janaki Wickramasinghe have completed computer simulations of our sun’s movements in its outer spiral location in the Milky Way, and determined that we are now entering a danger zone where molecular clouds might perturb the solar system -- the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten.

Watch a great (and personal) tour of the International Space Station given by Sunny Williams just immediately prior to her departure from the ISS a month or so ago.  She literally gave it the day of her return to Earth… after commanding the ISS for the prior 3 months.

Not to be missed! Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune's orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy.
Scientists spin carbon nanotube threads on an industrial scale. This is huge - not just for a Space Elevator  but for construction in general. There's a cool video showing how they do it - they're not keeping it all secret...

And finally, a gorgeous false-color image of Mercury. NASA's Messenger space probe has been mapping the surface, and has detected evidence of water ice and volatiles at the permanently shaded poles of Mercury.

== Finally: space rocks redux ==

To recap: one asteroid - about 50 meters across - zipped by Earth from the south, closer than our communication satellites, just hours after another - perhaps 15 meters across - plummeted in from the north and gave up more energy than a hydrogen bomb as it broke apart high over over Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, briefly outshining the sun and shattering hundreds of windows.  Soon reports came in of lesser bolides over Cuba and San Francisco, leading one of you to write in that February 16 began featuring regular meteor showers a few years ago.  (The "Febrids"?)  So mark your calendars for next year, you northern hemisphere folks.

All this ruckus led to my serving another stint as astronomy pundit on BBC. My job on-air was to reassure that there would be no radiation… that in fact, bolides like this one seem to strike our planet once a decade or so, but always till now over open ocean or deserts or countryside. (In the 1970s one such event, off Japan, almost triggered a rise in DEFCON alert level at the US NORAD!)  This was the first ever to perturb a city.

Only now another quirky insight, offered by amateur astronomer Charles Smarr, who wrote to me in order to comment that the Russian bolide seems to have crossed the sky in a glancing path.  This, plus the fact that so little meteoritic material appears to have been collected on the ground, suggests a possibility… just a thought, till disproved (and I expect it will be!)… that a large portion or two of the shattering chondrite might have skipped back out again, re-entering space.  Indeed, since this path might emulate that of an aerobraking spacecraft, is it worth pondering whether any chunks might have entered Earth orbit? Or Earth-accompanying solar orbit.

Again, seems unlikely... or that we'd have heard about it by now.  Still. Any of you brainy CONTRARY BRIN sophonts out there care to look into this for us?  Report back under Comments, below.


Josh Freeman said...

Heard about another of those propellant-less EM drives last year when Joel Hodgson of MST3k fame talked about one of his other jobs on a podcast. Don't know how realistic this one is either, maybe they will both turn out like Blacklightpower, forever making grandiose promises but never delivering results.

Cannae's Q-Drive

Patricia Mathews said...

I watch the space news such as you have reported eagerly, but until it's off the ground, I've learned over 6 decades of glorious promises that have always been "just a decade away" or "there when we want to pay for it" to wait until it takes off and lands safely. IN some instances, until people are buying tickets for it.

That said, thanks for the update. This all sounds very promising indeed.

Unknown said...

I'm still pushing using H2 balloons for lift, add O2 at apex to a small rocket and the empty shell for a solar sail.
Dangerous, but not much more than the current mix of H2+02 rockets in use: more @

TheMadLibrarian said...

*puts on pedant hat* I think your spellchecker must have had a brain fut; it should be bolide, one 'l'.

smarkshe: I really don't mean to be rude...

Charles Smarr said...

I have been a science geek and an amateur astronomer for almost as long as I can remember. It should surprise no one that I have paid a great deal of attention to the recent meteorite that exploded near Chelyabinsk. I believe that I may have observed something important. I think I see evidence in some of the videos that the meteor did not entirely come to Earth. If this would happen to be true and the meteor's velocity was reduced enough by the contact with the Earth's atmosphere, the minor asteroid remnant may have entered an orbit around the Earth.
I realize that this is a long shot. If this has happened a shattered body will return. If this happens the consequences could be severe. Please tell me what you think about this possibility. - The video that shows the entry and the exit after the vehicle makes a turn. The object in question is visible in the extreme right side of the frame. This is the first video that I saw. I viewed it at about 1AM. I expected that when I got back home at 5:30 all the news would be about how lucky they were that the meteor did not really fall. Instead CNN was busy with the ship of stools landing in Alabama. - This video is showing clearly the entire contrail from entry to exit. The object in question leaves at 29 seconds. There is a cupola that might be used to locate this site accurately. - Video of the exit moving almost directly away from the vehicle. Clear exit at about 50 seconds.

Jonathan S. said...

I don't see why all the criticism of Shawley (hope I got his name right) was about theory. He says he built the device. Obtain one. If possible, obtain the plans. See if it works as described - thrust with no propellant, when shielded from other factors like planetary magnetic fields. If it works, then worry about the underlying theory. If it doesn't, laugh him out of the building. That's what happened with Fleischman and Pons, wasn't it?

Meanwhile, remember that sometimes the theory used may not properly describe what's observed. For instance, I'm told there's actually some question as to whether Bernoulli's Principle in fact accounts for the way an airplane wing provides lift. (There's no question that it does, and that the shape is responsible - but that was arrived at by trial and error, not theory.)

Jonathan S. said...

That last sentence should have started, "There's no question the wing does provide lift..." Darn that lack of an Edit function!

David Brin said...

An interesting discussion of the known threat levels of various asteroidal objects:

Astronist said...

David, none of the NIAC projects you mention address the fundamental problem facing spaceflight, the problem the Shuttle was intended to solve: that of achieving economical access to orbit, of "routinizing" it (in Nixon's word, announcing the Shuttle programme). The baton really has passed to the commercial sector now, with companies like SpaceX and (in the UK) Reaction Engines making real progress where NASA and copycat agencies such as ESA have failed. As you say, the prospects are exciting, but not thanks to the last 30 years of work at the space agencies!

Oxford, UK

Alfred Differ said...

Some of the newspace companies rather prefer NIAC stay focused further out ahead. Funding potential competitors or capturing them (more likely) into a gov't contractor role doesn't thrill them.

When I saw the first meteor video, I too thought it had grazed the atmosphere. As the explosive power estimates climbed, I thought the graze must have gone deep. The problem with this is that in order to near a megaton yield you have to have a very strong rock to survive the graze.

A more plausible narrative is that the rock came apart at some point and the smaller parts couldn't leave a trail. It would look like a grazing event from our position.

On airfoils, lots of people mess up the explanation for how they work. The simple explanation involving airspeeds on top and bottom will misdirect you. Just look at the pressures at various points and skip the hand-waving for how the pressure differences come to be. Fluids are complicated.

Ingo Heinscher said...

Mentioning interesting NASA projects... but not mentioning...

Seems to have even bigger impact than a functioning EMDrive might have.

locumranch said...

The Chinese EM Drive is old news.

The Iranians appear to possess a Parallel Universe Drive that allows them to orbit & retrieve non-homologous monkeys, giving them unfair competitive advantage in the field of monkey-based meteor mining, assuming that these monkeys possess the superior intelligence attributed to them by any number of Stephen Baxter novels.

We must pursue similar astronautical technologies immediately or risk economic subjugation at the hands of an Islamo-Simian extraterrestrial mineral monopoly. Write your Congressman or Parliamentarian now, or we are doomed.


Robert said...

The Super Ball Bot sounds like a great idea, but, on a less serious note. could it be a countermeasure for the Super Happy Fun Ball, which, as we know, came from outer space?

Bob Pfeiffer.

Ian said...

Any billionaires interested in advancing human wellbeing globally and not just in the US might want to take note of this;

"The large antiretroviral treatment (ART) scale-up in a rural community in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, has led to a rapid and dramatic increase in population adult life expectancy—a gain of 11.3 years over eight calendar years (2004-2011)—and the benefit of providing ART far outweighs the cost, according to new research from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)."

Alfred Differ said...

If we are putting together a wish list here how about this...

Be the person who pays off whoever needs to be paid off (many no doubt) to finally eradicate polio from the face of the earth.

We are close.

Be that person.

sociotard said...

Money isn't the problem with polio. It's the fighting. It's hard to get a comprehensive vaccine program going with warlords demanding tribute.

Ian said...

I for one would happy contribute to a campaign to eradicate Boko Haram.

Tacitus2 said...


One of several good news stories of late coming out of Africa. It is generally felt appropriate to mention that HIV programs work, and to credit the local governments. Fine. It is generally not considered appropriate to mention the name of a US President who implausibly and with no particular motives other than compassion, made HIV in Africa a priority for US foreign policy. He who shall not be named is probably ok with that, good works not trumpeted are a little bit "gooder".

If you are interested in a glimpse at where 3D printers and such are taking us:


Alfred Differ said...

Warlords demanding tribute is my point. Pay them off and get them out of the way. Use traceable gifts if you want to find and shoot them later, but for now pay them off and move on.

Jumper said...

I saw an IBM scientist make some conjectures on cold fusion when it first was publicized. His idea was that possible phase changes (from palladium to palladium hydride) was causing micro-cracking, and then he pointed out (the interesting part) that in fracture mechanics, the very microscopic tip of the propagating crack develops intense charges, on the order of millions of electron volts. Sufficient to, by mere chance, accelerate a few hydrogens at each other to fuse. Extremely interesting.
(He also said, in a CYA, that he didn't think it was actually happening, but if it was, that's why!)

I have never heard of this enticing proposition has been followed up. I sort of played around with ideas how to test this explicitly, but could not come up with a method to reliably crack blocks of hydride metals (2 and or 3) while measuring the smaller resultant energy surplus if any. I envisioned a wheel of palladium hydride, rolling repeatedly with enough force to cause continuous cracking. If it didn't shatter, the ultimate result would be an amorphous mass of dislocations...

David Brin said...

Interesting Jumper. I had similar thoughts about cold fusion at the time.

Tacitus I was always willing to give Bush cred for the aids campaign. Indeed, folks on the right divide between the callous and the sincere. And the sincere truly want to think of themselves as good people who do charitable things.

When I learn that an anti-abortion person has adopted a child or done work in foreign villages (even when it was partly missionary) I listen to their nonsensical arguments with considerably more patience, courtesy and respect because they have put their actions and money where their mouth is.

These sincere folks are a conservative constituency and Bush had to toss them something. But note this. It did the USA no particular good. You are still challenged to find one thing Bush did that actually and in statistically significant ways helped the United States of America.

Nydoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nydoc said...

@Charles Smarr
This might help you in your analysis of the meteor:

David Brin said...


Ken Arnold said...

It seems to me that printing spacecraft and space balls might work together very well: The printer prints the detectors/analyzers for the tensegrity probe to carry. And applying the moon regolith printer, maybe we could print the tensegrity probe near the planet in question using a small rocky moon. That would allow a probe to be sent and experiments to be designed later, even after results from the same mission.

Since this won’t all fit in a comment very well, Ive put up a blog post on it: <a href="“>3D Printed Space Missions</a>