Saturday, February 15, 2014

Innovations to help us conquer space

I just attended the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts group (NIAC) symposium at Stanford -- (I am on NIAC's Council of External Advisors) -- watching and appraising and questioning terrific presentations about future-potential "game-changing" space technologies.  In four days the recipients of NIAC seed grants, showed us how NASA's small but strategic investments in exceptional… even risky… technologies might prove valuable -- even vital -- if given a chance.
NASA-NIACThe presentations, open to the public, were live-streamed and are now archived for your viewing pleasure.
Punctuating the technical talks, our first keynote speaker was Jamie Hyneman, famed producer and co-star of The Mythbusters TV show. He was most inspiring, logical, humble and sensible about seeking the proper balance between play and risk and responsibility... an excellent perspective, very apropos for NIAC.  (During break, Jamie also told me I had been one of his favorite authors, way back when… till the show took all his time and banished reading. Ah well!)
Other keynotes included my friend Peter Norvig, head of research at Google (also hugely inspiring) and SETI Institute chief scientist Seth Shostak, who gave a clever-dynamic speech about how likely it is that "everything will change." We have our disagreements, but Seth does deliver high octane big-think. There was also an interesting reception and speech by two experts about venture capitalism in space, hosted at SETI institute HQ, of all places.
The talks by NIAC fellows themselves were way-interesting. Several innovators aim to use "tensegrity," which gives separate roles to tension and compression elements in new kinds of light weight structures.  One group wants to make tensegrity "balls" that can cushion a landing payload, then controllers back on Earth might command the rover to tug-shrink various tension members, in order to roll around.  Another team wants to use tensegrity to make torus space habitats, starting at 10 meters then expanding all the way up to space colonies.  (The use of tensegrity in innovative structures is illustrated in my graphic novel: Tinkerers.)
image-volcanoOther talks were even more amazing. Can we see inside super-dangerous volcanoes like Vesuvius? Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo reasoned that the throat of a volcano could be "x-rayed" with energetic muons produced in cosmic-ray showers. The number of muons passing through the volcano would depend on the density of intervening rock, so measuring the number of muons passing through various parts of the volcano could yield a crude, 3-D view of the interior.  So, can we use this in space? One of the fellows with a NIAC grant showed us even more spectacular potential application… a way to peer inside asteroids!
Then there's Red Whittaker who has made progress developing a robot that can lower itself (rappel) on a cable into some of the lava tube tunnels that we're now pretty sure exist on the Moon and Mars, after we've spotted some of the "skylight" openings that have caved-open, exposing some of them... potentially ideal places for early human visitors and colonies to inhabit. Those settlers would then supplement the caves with other NIAC innovations! Like with "printed" concrete that uses sulfur to replace water.  Or polymers to bind regolith with water - only the water gets recovered for re-use.
torpor_inducing_transfer_habitatforhumanstasistomarsRobert Hoyt talked about his group's truss-making "trusselator" … then a biomedical team reported on their scenario for using "torpor" -- human hibernation -- for spaceflight! (Just don't leave a crazy AI in charge, while you sleep.) Another bio group has been studying ways to tailor and refine organically-derived useful materials in space. Then… how about combining fusion and fission, maximizing neutron use and getting the best of each for a very high ISP rocket!
Here's a great one studied by two separate groups… 2-D "landers" that are like sheets of paper and flutter down to planets, needing no complex rockets etc… with printed circuits and instruments! Then we saw an effort to mimic Geoff Landis's great sci fi story "A Walk in the Sun" by having a rover circumnavigate the poles of Mercury or the Moon, moving just fast enough to stay in twilight, where there's solar power, but not so much you get scorched. Another team wants to use a base station lander to aim reflected empowering sunlight at its rover. (I actually quite liked that one).
590487main_strekalov_226Or how about balloons that are also telescopes, made from mirroring their spherical bottoms?  Or ultra thin film (and spectacularly broad) telescopes that keep perfect optical shape because their chemically-treated undersides are written-on by a laser? Or using the quantum diffraction of whole atoms to make an orbiting interferometer more than six orders of magnitude more accurate than any other, allowing detection of minute gravity waves? 

Think that's weird? There was also a project to use "ghost imaging" to picture things in space that no one can see!  Compared to that, an ideas for a whirling-bola permanently-aloft aircraft and propulsion via photonic thrusters seemed positively mundane… (and I mean that in a good way!)
All along, there was lots of talk of using cubesats, inexpensive and very small satellites and probes that bring costs way down.  Interesting stuff!
And… even more important… examples of our tax dollars (mostly) well and efficiently spent on the seed corn from which future industries might grow.
== Other space news ==
Even if no rogue state attacks with an EMP… the sun eventually will.  We should have been hardening the grid and civilian electronics for 30 years.  Indeed, such hardening would make an attack less tempting and thus less likely.  It is called robustness and should be a core national - and civilization-wide - goal.
For two weeks, humans and a humanoid robot lived in a simulated Martian environment inside a habitat module-- in Utah!
Take a kewl tour of just a few spectacular images from Mars.
A NASA experiment to seek ultra-low temperatures -- as low as 100 pico-degrees Kelvin -- will be put aboard the Space Station in order to eliminate the effects of gravity. The hope is to study deep quantum-statistical effects of matter, such as Bose-Einstein condensates.  The NASA research team believes that they will be able to create work in this proposed coldest known location in the universe in intervals of up to 20 seconds and that they may be able to create atomic wave packets that are capable of being seen by the naked eye.
TankFarmCoverNewIn other cool NASA news that gets far-out but plausible... a new series of "NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction," has grown out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor books. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.  (Along similar lines, see my novella, Tank Farm Dynamo.) 

What is so cool is how this kind of return to the old, confident, can-do spirit is exactly what we need to counter act the swamp of dystopias and same-same hopelessness that currently infests YA fiction. 

==Colonies in Space==

Okay, saving the dreamiest for last. It seems that a whole new generation is being awakened to the delightful vision so many of us had, in the 1980s… of artificial colonies in orbit. 

Sure the recent movie Elysium portrayed a "Stanford Torus" serving as the ultimate enclave-metaphor for class oppression.  (It also had a magical force-field that somehow was useless against incoming ships.) But even in that case, the gorgeous habitat become a source of hope for all humanity.

This dream -- which goes back to J.D. Bernal's marvelous design of 1929 -- is being given a kick by some low-scale NASA backing

We should all help re-introduce another generation to this notion, which is the ultimate expression of the confident, assertive, Can-Do Spirit we so desperately need, here on Earth.

Let "we can do it" be the theme for a century that begins this year!

And now… onward!


locumranch said...

Sorry, I just wanted to comment on the 'rogue asteroid' article cited in your last post, since it provides an excellent example of numerical & classification fallacy wherein (1) the item counted appears to become more common and/or 'numerous' by the very act of counting and (2) the term 'rogue' literally presupposes a 'solitary' condition, the problem being that an increased 'count' does not necessarily correlate with an actual numerical increase, especially when the old 'count' is based on ignorance, prehistorical data estimates & classification errors, as in the case of those assumptions that are said to 'prove' an increase in autism rates, weather severity & global temperature.

Unlike you, David, I am not convinced that we need new 'innovations' to conquer space -- we could do that with current tech. Instead, I think that we need a whole new mental paradigm, an altered perspective as it were, something along the lines of Kuttner & Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", before we leave this rock of ours or we risk certain failure due to the repetition of flawed cognitive patterns.


David Brin said...

locum teach us. Write a book.

Stefan Jones said...

By the standards of most humans of a thousand years ago, we are living in a new mental paradigm.
* * *
Interesting bit about using balloons for landing assist. In '96 I wrote a paper for a space policy course, presenting a possible Mars mission. I suggested using "bounce" landing for delivering the advance supplies, with the fabric recycled as shelters.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Because of the inevitability of a severe near-worldwide geomagnetic storm, the electric grid is known to be only a temporary infrastructure. Yet it is the infrastructure upon which all of the other critical infrastructures depend.

It would cost only a few dollars per household over a lifetime to convert the power grid from something very fragile to something very resilient. We mostly just need to block the DC-like geomagnetic currents caused by a severe solar storm from getting into large power transformers. How to do this is well known, but people are content to risk their lives every day upon a temporary infrastructure.

If this temporary infrastructure dies before people come to their senses, hundreds of millions of people will die slowly as the water distribution, food distribution and sewage systems rapidly and permanently grind to a halt because of the catastrophic loss of the electric power grid. Fuel can no longer be manufactured or distributed without electricity. We can't even make replacement transformers for the power grid (or even solar panels) without electricity.

People risk their lives every day by making the bizarre assumption that since a severe geomagnetic storm hasn't happened since May 1921, it will simply never happen again.

Civilization may only have one chance to form a permanent technological civilization. As long as we continue to remain totally dependent upon what we know to be a temporary infrastructure, we may wake up to find, on any day, that we have blown that one chance.

rwc said...

"Hardening" the electrical grid would be no small task, and not cheap. If you consider risks on a probabilistic basis it is a low frequency, high consequence event with a very high cost of mitigation.

We are in a time when the cost of service increases associated with simply maintaining existing infrastructure, let alone doing things people desire (renewable generation, close all the coal plants, "smart" grid, etc.) cause significant regulatory fights over rate increases. I would not expect geomagnetic disturbance mitigation work to occur absent a NERC requirement to do so. Candidly, there are higher probability risks that have yet to be mitigated, I will leave it at that.

Alex Tolley said...

I had watched the segment on induced torpor for spaceflight. I thought your question about the long term effects on using the nasal cavities quite relevant.

It seemed to me that the presenters had not thought through the potential problems in their zeal to suggest that this would significantly reduce the cost of a mission.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

When deciding what risk to mitigate against, you must look at the consequences of each risk. Many dangers faced by the electric power grid could be repaired in a month or two, and would only affect a large part of one country. For most dangers, replacement parts could be purchased from other countries. Those events would cause hardship and death, but would not substantially risk the collapse of technological civilization.

We should have become a true space-faring civilization 30 years ago like the L5 Society wanted to do. Since we did not, we need to get our infrastructure in order so that we will have another chance.

A severe worldwide geomagnetic storm could collapse power grids in nearly all industrialized countries, and most power grids would likely be down for time periods measured in years. Re-building might not be possible because nearly all of the industrialized infrastructure of the world would be inoperative. Unlike the 19th century world, everything today depends upon electricity. We would be back to a 19th century starting point without basic 19th century infrastructure and with most of the 19th century fossil-fuel base depleted. (Oil wells and refineries require electricity.)

When considered over an ordinary human lifetime, the probability of a worldwide severe geomagnetic storm is not low. The fact that we have gone 9 decades without one is just dumb luck.

The best protection against geomagnetic storms is having transformers built and on site for the largest transformers in a system. (The transformers connected to long transmission lines are the most vulnerable.) You can get a fairly good protection, though, by putting a refrigerator-sized $40,000 power resistor in the neutral to ground leg of each large operational transformer.

Perry Willis said...

This is great stuff. If the nightly news covered this kind of information I'd start watching it again. Thanks for taking the time to share all of this David.

Alex Tolley said...

The talk on tensegrity structures for GROWING space structures was very interesting. I hadn't realized that this type of structure would allow for growth. I've seen simple tensegrity structures in conceptual architecture projects, including the use of inflatable compression members, but never seen them used to expand a structure. One attraction of inflatable compression members is that they can subsequently be filled with ISRU water (and polymers) to make very strong compression structures of large size. This could be very attractive for habitats on planetary surfaces, such as Mars, as well as space structures.

When building compression members, the standard approach uses trusses. The emphasis for space is to make the truss material as rolls of flat material to be unrolled, formed and welded into a truss. I'd like to see whether a tensegrity approach might make even better use of materials and preferably easier deployments, with subsequent control of the structure shape and stiffness.

David Brin said...

Alex, excellent remarks. You'll note that NIAC is funding another endeavor that would build compression-torsion trusses in orbit by welding wire from a spool. Mate that with tensegrity and you have real potential.

The torpor guys left us NIAC advisors unimpressed. They were mapping a mission architecture without being able to cite any animal studies of torpor induced in non-hibernating species. Cart Waaaaaay before the horse. Almost literally.

But many cool presentations about new concepts, some of them cool.

locumranch said...

Potential innovations need to be placed in social subtext:

Jerry E & RWC are engaged in what I call the Titanic Debate wherein one defines potential problems as "unthinkable" in the same way that the Titanic was defined as 'unsinkable". A variant of David's positive thinking superstition, it rejects the expression of negative thoughts, equates the pessimistic projection with the primitive curse and allows us to repeat the same tired old patterns with an ignorance of consequence through the invocation of the Evil Eye (or its modern equivalent). As any PC thug can tell you, there are certain words that cannot be spoken, let alone thought in polite company, and so it is with human accomplishment in general.

By the same mechanism. we can redefine any catastrophe as "unthinkable." And, we do, arguing that 'nuclear power is safe' after Chernobyl & Fukishima, that chemicals do not spill after Bhopal & Freedom, that commonly-occurring asteroids are 'rogue', that our fisheries are inexhaustible, that the climate cannot change without human mediation, that our power grids cannot fail, that our pipelines do not rupture and that our civilization cannot crumble. This is self-delusion at its worst, allowing 25% of the Eastern United States to be SURPRISED when a long predicted snow-storm arrives, disrupts fair-weather air travel and makes road travel hazardous, allowing 25% of the Western United States to be thoroughly SHOCKED when catastrophic drought rears its ugly head in order to reclaim a historic desert.

And, be forewarned & forearmed, that when the **fit hits the shan**, the bulk of humanity will rise up and find someone or some agency to blame, some Pessimistic Witch to burn, for the Unforgivable Sin of speaking or thinking the "Unthinkable", especially if those evil prophecies come true as in the increasingly likely case of grid failure, climate change or global collapse. Scientists not excluded.


David Brin said...

What a crock. locus is back to spewing at straw men of his own devising.

As the coiner of "social T Cells" and CITOKATE, I can simply laugh at dullard cynics who call me a polyanna.

* snork! *

locumranch said...

What he said:

Pessimists are 'cynic dullards,'
immoral darkness bound in wicked hearts.
With light and joy and faith abounding,
Optimists are moral, just and wicked smart.


Can you say 'baseless emotionalism'?


Duncan Cairncross said...

"Pessimists are 'cynic dullards,'
immoral darkness bound in wicked hearts.
With light and joy and faith abounding,
Optimists are moral, just and wicked smart."

Sounds about right to me

David Brin said...

I'll give locum this much, he does a good job offering both sides, refuting himself spectacularly.

David Brin said...