Saturday, October 30, 2021

Upcoming missions to asteroids, moons and more

While hoping (and striving) for Enlightenment Civilization to rise up and repel the forces of lobotomization and darkness... I feel I should remind you to be confident! After all, what kind of bozo wallows in gloom when we can fly robo-helicopters on Mars, plumb the earliest moments of the Big Bang and shorten vaccine development times from 15 years to 6 months? And yes, make guilt-tripping wonders like Greta T?

Here's more, to stoke that spirit! A chant I urge upon everyone who stands with the sapient side of our civil war: 

"I'm as proud as hell and I'm not listening to gloomists, anymore! We can do anything!"

== Something tells me it's all happening... out there! ==

Among the missions I am most excited about is JAXA’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission — it’ll launch in 2024 to study both Martian moons, eventually returning a sample of Phobos to Earth in 2029. (And I know another group, in stealth mode, aiming at the other one.)

If either moon has traits of a carbonaceous chondrite asteroid (they might once have been) then it could have accessible water and other volatiles and be one of the most valuable sites in the whole Solar System.  The Russians tried to reach it several times. 

This is what the U.S. should be doing in space… partnering with the Japanese and ESA to do things only we can do - while keeping our hand in the Moon robotically and selling/renting landers and hotel rooms to all the Apollo wannabe tourists who are desperate for their “today I am a man” rite-of-passage footprints on Luna’s plain of poison dust. (We did that 50 years ago! Let others have their Bar Moonzvahs while we go for the riches out there.)

Meanwhile, DART - or a Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) - will be NASA's first use of the kinetic impactor technique, crashing into an asteroid to change its motion. NASA is set to conduct the mission, what it calls "the first test for planetary defense," on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, to hit the binary near-Earth asteroid Didymos, specifically its moonlet, Dimorphos. Targeting a double asteroid allows vastly better post-impact effects analysis.

NASA's VIPER - Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (pictured) will head to the moon's south pole in 2023 to map concentrations of water ice in these permanently shadowed regions - where the sun never shines. At NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC) - we've funded early phase enabling projects.

And the Psyche mission, set for launch in 2022, will journey to a unique nickel-iron metal asteroid between Mars and Jupiter - likely the core of a proto-planet that never finished forming. And yes, gold & platinum and all that. Rewrite the EXPANSE!

And yes, as you've heard. As NASA prepares to retire the International Space Station after more than two decades in orbit, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin has partnered with Sierra Space and Boeing, proposing a new commercial space station to be built in low Earth orbit. Orbital Reef, billed as a "mixed use business park in space," will offer opportunities for micro-gravity research and manufacturing - for commercial, government, and scientific use - as well as space tourism. To be operational in the late 2020s.

== Woof and you think it’s hot? ==

Scientists have a new class of habitable exoplanets to look for life on: Hycean planets... hot planets covered in oceans that have an atmosphere rich in hydrogen -- and they MIGHT be much easier to find and observe than twins of our own planet. They have a larger habitable zone than Earth or Earth-like planets.

Hycean planets can reach up to 2.6 times the size of Earth and reach atmospheric temperatures of almost 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Underneath their hydrogen-rich atmosphere are oceans where microbial life could exist. 

Or cold?  An enormous comet — possibly the largest one ever detected — is barreling toward the inner solar system with an estimated arrival time of 10 years from now. The comet, known as the Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet (or C/2014 UN271, in astro-speak), is at least 62 miles (100 kilometers) across — about 1,000 times more massive than a typical comet. In our novel Heart of the Comet, Gregory Benford and I explored a comet (Halley) in both science (my PhD thesis!) and speculation in a dramatic space adventure.

Or rich? While the Psyche mission is preparing to robotically explore its namesake asteroid in the outer belt, a huge chunk of almost pure metal, likely from the core of a shattered protoplanet, a few much smaller metal rocks have been found tumbling within (relatively) much easier reach. Astronomers have ‘explored the mining potential of 1986 DA and found that the amount of iron, nickel and cobalt that could be present on the asteroid would exceed all of Earth's global reserves of these metals! While other Near Earth Asteroids contain gigatons of water. A far vaster realm of “resources” than our poor, depleted Moon.

== More astonishing asteroids ==

Lucy in the sky.... Just launched! NASA has launched Lucy - the first mission to the Trojan asteroids, orbiting near Jupiter. Its twelve year mission will take the probe on a circuitous journey to fly by eight different asteroids (one main belt and seven Trojan asteroids). These asteroids may represent time capsules from the formation of the early solar system. And yes, latest news: worrisome inability of one of Lucy's solar panels to latch. :-(

Scientists have identified two asteroids that are extremely red — more red than anything else seen in the asteroid belt, suggesting a lot of organic material on the surface, something we’ve observed in objects farther from the sun.

Earth crossing asteroid Phaeton, source of the Geminid meteor stream – has an elongated, 524-day orbit that takes the object well within the orbit of Mercury, during which time the Sun heats the asteroid’s surface up to about 1,390 degrees Fahrenheit (750 degrees Celsius). With such a warm orbit, any water, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide ice near the asteroid’s surface would have baked off long ago. But at that temperature, sodium may be fizzing from the asteroid’s rock and into space, creating both kinds of comet-like comas and possibly even tails… both ionized sodium and dust driven off the surface, explaining the rock’s increased brightness at perihelion.

The process described in this article happens also to be the one I first elucidated in my doctoral thesis, long ago. So, yeah, predictive track record preceded my career in science fiction!

Kleopatra, a “dog-bone” shaped asteroid which orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupitera is 270 kilometers (~168 miles) long and shaped like… well… more like a peanut. 

Unrelated to my story and screenplay set under the oceans of Venus, titled "The Tumbledowns of Cleapatra Abyss." And yes, it is hard SF. Good script, too!

== Navigating NASA - and beyond ==

I’ve been (proudly) a member of the external advisory council for NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC). We just finished our annual symposium of truly amazing projects – just this side of science fiction - that NIAC seed-funded. You can watch the recorded livestream here or view the projects individually. 

A three times NIAC fellow and former NASA Jet Propulsion Lab employee, Jeff Nosanov, has a new book out: How Things Work At NASA: Everyday Secrets of Space Exploration is a behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of the most famous space science organization in the world. Specialized interest but potentially valuable to some of you. 

I might add that I am very impressed with NASA, of late, for the practical reason that former Administrator Bridenstine and others managed to shield the important technology endeavors from raids to fund Donald Trump’s Artemis moondoggle. Perhaps Trump’s (unintentionally) best appointee. 

== And Space Miscellany! ==

A fascinating and gorgeous 3-D rendering of the Veil Nebula.

Dead galaxies? NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found six ancient galaxies, which appeared to have run out of the cold hydrogen gas needed to make stars while most other galaxies were producing new stars at a rapid pace. The gas “could have been expelled and now it's being prevented from accreting back onto the galaxy. Or did the galaxy just use it all up, and the supply is cut off?" Since the galaxies were so old and so far away, scientists spotted them via gravitational lensing. 

Considered an ultra-hot Jupiter – a place where iron gets vaporized, condenses on the night side and then falls from the sky like rain – the fiery, inferno-like WASP-76b exoplanet may be even more sizzling than scientists had realized.

A cool… rather hot… new approach to the magnetic acceleration of atoms to provide thrust in space uses the ‘pop’ of energy when separated magnetic field lines reconnect (as on the sun). One of several ways to offload the power part of the rocket from the propellant part, so both can be optimized separately.

And... a WTH moment. This textbook illustration meant well…


duncan cairncross said...

This is an extremely interesting blog

With reference to the latest space missions Casey observes that with SpaceX and Starship - and orbital re-fueling - the whole space exploration game changes dramatically

Rather than spending a fortune on making superbly light and sophisticated probes it becomes more cost effective to send heavier but much cheaper probes

This will require the entire "business model" of places like JPL to change completely

I was wondering if you had seen any sign of people planning for those changes??

frabjoustheelder said...

It's so strange (interesting) to me that we have to practice deflecting asteroids. Shouldn't the physics on that be pretty simple and foolproof? Exciting that we are taking this seriously.

Daniel Duffy said...

When talking about colonizing mars, landing on Phobos is a necessary first step for one simple reason: we have no idea how to safely land a man on Mars. The Martian atmosphere is too thin for a parachute landing and its gravity is too heavy for rocket landing. "Landing safely on Mars is hard. The atmosphere is too thin for aerobraking of massive payloads, but thick enough to kick up horribly unpredictable turbulence if you try and use retro-rockets. So for small payloads recent probes have used the bouncy air-bag trick ... but that involves loads of up to 20 gees on impact (not good for humans!) and maxes out at around 1000 kg of payload (or the airbags are infeasibly bulky and heavy). The big sky crane approach is promising (allows retro-rockets while avoiding the turbulence/disruption of landing site effect) but nobody's tried doing it on a payload within an order of magnitude of the size necessary for even an unfueled ascent stage capable of sending an astronaut back into orbit: an ascent stage with fuel on board would be even more massive (on the order of 40-50 tons, minimum)." - 20 gees will kill a man.

So send a manned mission to Phobos - not Mars. Dig an underground tunnel warren into Phobos to shield the crew from radiation and study Mars from the high ground of low orbit. With remote controlled rovers and aero craft actually landing on Mars is not necessary.

Daniel Duffy said...

Don't go to Mars, go to Ceres.

Best arguments for colonizing Ceres instead of Mars.

With properly designed centrifugal structures, low gravity (0.03g) is not a problem. With its large water supplies, Ceres is the only other choice for human habitation in the solar system. For the few humans actually living and working in space, Ceres would be their home.

With Ceres providing water, Psyche providing metals, and with every other rock providing rare earths and carbonates we have all we need to industrialize the asteroid belt.

And we should do it almost entirely with robots and AI - people in space are just too expensive.

Apply the same approach to mine out Mercury with robotic tunneling machines, diggers and fabricators to create a Dyson swarms launched into orbit with solar powered mass drivers. A system of solar powered satellites in Mercury's orbit would literally provide billions of times the energy we now use.

And float robotic aerostats in the Venusian atmosphere, not to create Star Wars type Cloud Cities (what would be the point?), but to mine CO2 from the Venusian atmosphere. There is already a commercially viable process that extracts carbon from atmospheric CO2 to make graphene - which can be used to make anything from tennis racquets to 747s.

And there is enough carbon that can be extracted from the Venusian atmosphere that can be used to build massive carbon nanotube structures, from a giant sunshade that cools Venus and makes it livable (once all of the CO2 has been mined) to giant Bishop Ring habitats each providing the land area equivalent of India and all together providing living space equal to a dozen new Earths.

Water, metals, energy, graphene nanotubes, rare earths - enough to create a Kardashev Type II civilization - all available without setting foot on a planet.

Daniel Duffy said...

Some back of the envelope calculations for Psyche metal production.

It has enough metal for 24 million years of steel production at current rates.

111 km (radius of Psyche)
5.73E+06 km^3 (volume of Psyche)
5.73E+15 m^3 (volume of Psyche)
7,850 kg/m^3 (weight of steel)
4.50E+19 kg (weight of Psyche - steel equivalent)
4.50E+16 tonnes (weight of Psyche - steel equivalent)
1.86E+09 tonnes/year (world steel production 2020)
24,131,170 years (steel production from Psyche at current rates)

Daniel Duffy said...

Some back of the envelope calculations for Ceres

468 km (radius of Ceres)
4.34E+08 km^3 (volume of Ceres
4.34E+17 m^3 (volume of Ceres)
4.00E+12 m^3/year (world freshwater consumption 2020)
108,500 years (water consumption from Ceres at current rates)

Paradoctor said...

Digging an underground warren on a distant world as pressure vessel and radiation shielding makes sense, but we haven’t done that yet, and so don’t yet know problems and cost. Also there are health risks of minigee and microgee. Spinning structures solve that, but must be off Ceres or Phobos, in thin-walled vessels poorly shielded.

Doug S. said...

There are also regions of Mercury that might be suitable for (underground) colonization.

David Brin said...

Both Mars and the moon have many 'skylihgts" which appear to be roof collapsed entries to underground volcanic tubes. If any of these exist near major ice sources then they are "sweet spots."

scidata said...

Re: Mars
Landing pads, strips, and rotating wings are things we do know a fair bit about. Also, the geology of planets is much more stable and predictable. I wouldn't sleep well in a cave drilled out of chondrites, dust, ice, and glass. And don't forget the 'tunnel' in The Empire Strike Back.

Daniel Duffy said...

Doug S - if we tunnel out Mercury for metals to make a Dyson swarm we can turn the entire planet into an underground ant hill for colonization.

In fact - since Mercury is as hot as Hell - if we organize the tunnel system into nine levels, we can name each level after Dante's Inferno. Starting with Limbo near the surface, and down through Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and finally Treachery near the molten core.

With artificial sealed environments each level could be paradise.

Daniel Duffy said...

Instead of pure terraforming (remaking the entire planet) para-terraforming (enclosed domes on the surface) we could use these tubes for holo-terraforming

As in holograms.

Take a tube large enough to hold the island of Manhattan, build a city of this size, seal the tube and pump it full of a breathable atmosphere with temperature controls and fake breezes and winds generated by blower systems, fake lakes and rivers, etc. Colonists can walk around in their shirt sleeves. You can even have weather or seasons.

Then cover its walls and ceiling with hologram projectors that create the illusion of living out under the open sky. VR technology should be advanced to the point where a holographic image of the sky and horizon can be generated. The illusion would be made perfect by an artificial "sun" that traverses the "sky" on a 24-day cycle and acts as a grow light for crops and plants. Or the projectors can transmit images of the actual sky above the underground colony. Except for the gravity, it's identical to home.

Terraforming and colonization done cheaply with pre-existing tunnels and virtual reality.

Paradoctor said...

Honeycombing Mercury with levels named after Dante's Inferno is amusing. How do you keep the lower levels near the molten core continuously air-conditioned? A power outage and you're red-hot? No thank you. On the other hand, living in an inherently hostile environment has certain military advantages. When invaders come, withdraw to small shelters, turn off the AC in the big habitat, and watch them fry. You'll have to rebuild and replant afterwards.

O loser exiles, this I say:
Seek land that's blessed by curse
Then learn to live the wasteland's way
Distinguish best from worst
So when invaders come on by
You need but hide and lurk
And watch them swift or slowly die
By Nature's dirty work.
Of all the threats in time and space
The very worst is Man
So run and race to find a place
That kills you if it can!

Larry Hart said...

Der Oger in the previous comments:

Might be a decade or so ago I played/read them, but I always thought the "Tales of the Old Republic" Comic books and games had by far better stories and characters than the movies. At least, I enjoyed them more.

A few days before Return of the Jedi opened in 1983, I had a dream which was a combination of watching the movie and actually flying around in a landspeeder with Luke and Threepio. I woke up feeling that the movie would induce the same kind of excitement that I had felt in my dream. Of course, the actual movie was a disappointment.

My dream came true several years later at the "Star Tours" ride in Disneyland, which had you actually flying around in different vehicles with Threepio's voice narrating. The ride was much more satisfying than the third movie had been.

Larry Hart said...

Jon S in the previous comments: explained why Anakin looked so terrible at the end of RoTJ with his mask off even though he was only about 45 when he died - turns out being evil is terrible for your skin.)

ESB and RotJ left me with the impression that the emperor looked so old and wrinkly because he had been around for a very long time and corrupted over time by the power he made use of. I was disappointed in the final prequel to see that Lucas's idea was that a single incident caused him to morph from non-wrinkled Palpataine to old-and-wrinkled emperor in the space of a few seconds.

duncan cairncross said...

Ceres is too big - escape velocity 500 km/hour
And too small - 0.029G

We need something much smaller - like Phobos - with an escape velocity of 20 km/hour

And we build a spinning habitat nearby!

A simple throwing arm powered by a small solar panel can throw 1000 tons a day to the habitat - that can be worked on using the power from the nice stationary sun that does not run away and hide half the time
That will give enough material to extract useful elements and use the dross as shielding

Phobos (or Deimos) have lots of advantages - one of which is that Mars can be used for an aerobraking maneuver saving a lot of fuel

Here we use water - but we don't need water or ice
We need Oxygen and Hydrogen
There is lots of both on most "rocks" - as oxides and other compounds
With copious continuous energy from the very light weight mirrors in free space we can extract as much Oxygen and Hydrogen as we want

Larry Hart said...

locumranch in the previous comments:

So, could someone please tell me again how a near 50% reduction in the absolute number of US hospital beds has absolutely nothing to do with our current reality of an insufficient number of US hospital beds?

It may have something to do with it, but we were apparently handling a smaller absolute number of beds just fine until COVID came along. It might be the case that had those additional beds still been available, there would have been enough to go around during the pandemic. But I tend to think that the COVID patients fill up whatever is available and then some, just because of the sheer number of cases prior to vaccination and continuing in places which resist vaccination, along with the extended period of time that many such patients require ICU care and ventilators.

My biggest point being that the rural Red areas which claim to "not care about" COVID only don't care to the extent that those grasshoppers require rescue from the ants taking precautions in the urban blue areas. You of all people should understand that allusion.

Larry Hart said...

Doug S:

There are also regions of Mercury that might be suitable for (underground) colonization.

Heh. Sorry, but I couldn't help hearing Humphrey Bogart say, "There are some parts of Mercury, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Daniel Duffy said...

Speaking of Martians....

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen. Out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!' Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next (sic) thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.
"So goodbye, everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian; it's Halloween."

David Brin said...

Best Halloween song ever!
Frank Zappa's Goblin Girl!

Anonymous said...

well democrats lost big time yesterday.
looks like they will get absolutely clobbered next year especially sense the biggest single part of Build Back Better is tax cuts for wealthy blue state residence. (that is assuming they pass it at all.)
inflation surging
supply chain breakdown
congressional dysfunction
energy cost soaring
totalitarian vaccine mandates
ineffective vaccines (Christmas time looks bad - april was the month with highest number of people getting vaccines - negative vaccine efficiency after 8 months )

David Brin said...

Ah, an anonymous drive-by got past the filter and I let it through because, well, it shows just how utterly insane confederates have gone. Um, fellah, events have momentum and YOUR party set everything you mention in motion.

But never mind. You are a marroon.