Tag Archives: interplanetary spaceship

The X-37B goes to Mars

After 675 days in space, the Air Force’s reusable X-37B mini-shuttle successfully returned to Earth today, completing its second flight in space.

There has been a lot of speculation about the secret payloads that the two X-37B’s have carried into space. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about this, though they have said this:

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” they added.

The obvious advantage of the X-37B is that it allows the Air Force to test these new technologies in space, then bring them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

However, I think the most important engineering knowledge gained from this flight will not be from the payload, but from the X-37B itself.
» Read more

Data collected by a radiation sensor inside Curiosity during its journey to Mars suggest that it will be possible to build ships with sufficient shielding to protect humans on such a voyage.

Data collected by a radiation sensor inside Curiosity during its journey to Mars suggest that it will be possible to build ships with sufficient shielding to protect humans on such a voyage.

Zeitlin and his colleagues analysed the radiation recorded by a small detector on board the craft that was active during most of the 253-day cruise to Mars. Although the craft was not uniformly protected from exposure to Galactic cosmic rays and charged particles from the Sun, the MSL’s shielding on average approximated that of human space-flight missions. ….

At NASA Langley, Thibeault and her colleagues are testing new types of shielding that consist of hydrogenated materials. Hydrogen offers protection because it breaks apart heavy charged particles without creating secondary particles that add to the radiation dose, she notes. One of the materials under investigation, hydrogen-filled boron nitride nanotubes, looks particularly promising because it is robust and lightweight enough to double as both the skin of a spacecraft and its shield. Using separate materials to build and shield a craft would add too much weight to a Mars-bound mission, Thibeault notes.

Thibeault says that she is heartened by the new study because she had feared that the radiation dose might be considerably higher. The results suggest “that this is a problem we can solve”, she adds.

Astronauts today spotted an ammonia coolant leak in ISS’s left-side power truss.

Astronauts today spotted an ammonia coolant leak in ISS’s left-side power truss.

They are monitoring it, but have so far not made any decision about what to do about it, if anything.

This problem is a perfect illustration of why a flight to Mars is more complicated in terms of engineering than first appears. We might at this time be able to build that interplanetary spaceship (with the emphasis on the word “might”) but could its passengers maintain it millions of miles from Earth? Right now I’d say no. We need to learn how to build an easily repaired and self-sufficient spaceship. ISS is neither. It is also not a very good platform for testing this kind of engineering.

Update: The astronauts on ISS are preparing for a possible spacewalk on Saturday to deal with the problem. More details here.

How the Bigelow module added to ISS will change the space equation.

How the Bigelow module added to ISS will change the space equation.

Looking a bit further down the road, the potential launch of a Bigelow BEAM module, particularly if it takes place on a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster could be a harbinger of much greater things to come. As Mars visionary Robert Zubrin and many others have observed, the addition of an inflatable module similar to that being considered for the station, to the SpaceX Dragon 2.0 capsule greatly increases the available space and capability of a future Dragon to serve both as a Mars transfer vehicle, and / or surface habitat. Add in the introduction of Falcon Heavy, and the pieces for an alternate vision of far more affordable (and timely) inner system exploration begin to fall into place.

Stewart Money has it exactly right. I have never accepted the claim that Orion was the only spacecraft being built that would be capable of going beyond low earth orbit. Add the right components to any manned vehicle, and you have an interplanetary spaceship.

The trick of course is adding the right components. For both Orion and Dragon, the present assumptions are much too nonchalant about what those components are. For humans to prosper on an interplanetary mission, the vessel requires a lot more than a mere capsule and single module.

An engineer has proposed in great detail building the USS Enterprise for the purpose of exploring the solar system.

If you build it they will come: An engineer has proposed using the USS Enterprise from Star Trek as a model for building an interplanetary spaceship for exploring the solar system.

Though similar in scale and appearance to the USS Enterprise (“it ends up that this ship configuration is quite functional,” Dan writes), the “Gen1 Enterprise” would be functionally very different. Firstly, the main nuclear-powered ion engine (boasting 1.5 GW of power) would strictly limit the Enterprise to intra-solar system missions, being incapable of anything approaching faster-than-light speeds. However, Dan claims that the Gen1 would be capable of reaching Mars from Earth within ninety days, and reaching the Moon in three.

The website is Build the Enterprise.

What is the International Space Station’s weakest link?

What is the International Space Station’s weakest link?

Mark Mulqueen, ISS vehicle director for Boeing Co., said keeping the station’s environmental control and life support systems, or ECLSS, functioning over the next decade will likely be engineers’ toughest challenge. “I don’t think it’s sparing or the structure to get to 2020,” Mulqueen said. “It’s probably continued refinement of how we successfuly operate our ECLSS system on-orbit. There has been a lot of effort going into understanding that.”

The article outlines a number of other areas of concern, none of which appear to be serious, for now, but could be a problem as the years pass.

Researchers in California have produced a cheap plastic capable of removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.

Researchers in California have produced a cheap plastic capable of removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.

The article focuses on how this could save us from global warming. What I see is a possible tool for making the construction of interplanetary spaceships more practical. On any vessel in space, something has to cleanse the air of carbon dioxide. Finding a cheap way to do this makes building those vessels much easier.

Sailing to Mars

With the end of the Mar500 simulated mission this coming Friday, the Russians are now proposing an eighteen month simulated Mars mission on board the International Space Station.

The Russians have been pushing to do this on ISS for years. Unfortunately, NASA has always resisted.

Yet, as I wrote in Leaving Earth, we will never be able to send humans to any other planets until we have flown at least one simulated mission, in zero gravity in Earth orbit, beforehand. Wernher von Braun pointed out this reality out back in the 1950s, and that reality has not changed in the ensuing half century. Not only will such a mission tell us a great deal about the medical issues of living in weightlessness for years at a time — issues that are far from trivial — it will give us the opportunity to find out the engineering problems of building a vessel capable of keeping humans alive during interplanetary flight, far from Earth.
» Read more

ISS partners discuss how to use the space station as a test bed for missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Now why didn’t they think of this before? The ISS partners met today to discuss how to use the space station as a test bed for missions beyond low Earth orbit.

As I wrote in Leaving Earth, a space station is nothing more than a prototype interplanetary spaceship. This kind of research is really its main purpose, and I am glad that the governments running ISS are finally beginning to recognize it, even though their engineers have known it for decades. Note too that the press release above also gives a nice overview of some of the ongoing research on ISS that is directly related to learning how to survive in space for long periods.