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Private companies are launching a new space race

London, UK (The Conversation)

Oct 05, 2017

The space race between the USA and Russia started with a beep from the Sputnik satellite exactly 60 years ago (October 4, 1957) and ended with a handshake in space just 18 years later. The handshake was the start of many decades of international collaboration in space. But over the past decade there has been a huge change.

The space environment is no longer the sole preserve of government agencies. Private companies have entered the exploration domain and are propelling the sector forward more vigorously and swiftly than would be the case if left to governments alone.

It could be argued that a new space race has begun, in which private companies are competing against each other and against government organisations. But this time it is driven by a competition for customers rather than the urge to show dominance by being first to achieve a certain goal. So who are the main players and how will they change the science, technology and politics of space exploration?

Put the phrase “private space exploration” into a search engine and a wealth of links emerges. Several have titles such as: “Six private companies that could launch humans into space”, “The world’s top 10 most innovative companies in space” or “10 major players in the private sector space race”. What is immediately apparent is that practically all these companies are based in the US.

There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low Earth orbit for telecommunications and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. Private companies in several nations have been engaged in the satellite market for many years. Their contributions to the development of non-governmental space exploration has helped to lay the trail for entrepreneurs with the vision and resources to develop their own pathways to space.

Today, several companies in the US are looking very specifically at human spaceflight. The three that are perhaps furthest down the road are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The main goals of all three companies is to reduce the cost of access to space – mainly through reuse of launchers and spacecraft – making space accessible to people who are not specially trained astronauts. One thing these companies have in common is the private passion of their chief executives.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a charismatic entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor. The ambition of SpaceX is “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. To this end, the company has specialized in the design, manufacture and launch of rockets, providing direct competition to the United Launch Alliance (between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that had been the contract holder of choice for launch of NASA and Department of Defense rocket launches.

Its success has been spectacular. Having developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, it became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft at the ISS in 2012. The firm now has a regular run there, carrying cargo. But so far, no astronauts. However, the Falcon Heavy is comparable to the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts, and SpaceX has designed its vehicle with a view to sending astronauts to the moon by 2018, and to Mars as early as 2023.

On September 29, Musk refined his plans, announcing the BFR project (which I like to pretend stands for Big F**king Rocket). This would replace the Falcon and Dragon spacecraft – and would not only transport cargo and explorers to the moon and Mars, but could also reduce travel times between cities on Earth. Musk calculates it could take as little as 29 minutes to fly from London to New York.

Whether the company succeeds in sending astronauts to the moon in 2018 remains to be seen. Either way, a lot could be going on then – 2018 is also the year when Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the technology and retail entrepreneur behind Amazon, aims to launch people to space. But its ambition is different from that of SpaceX. Blue Origin is focusing on achieving commercially available, sub-orbital human spaceflight – targeting the space tourism industry.

The company has developed a vertical launch vehicle (New Shepard, after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard) that can reach the 100km altitude used to define where “space” begins. The rocket then descends back to Earth, with the engines firing towards the end of the descent, allowing the spacecraft to land vertically. Test flights with no passengers have made successful demonstrations of the technology. The trip to space and back will take about 10 minutes.

But Blue Origin has got some competition from Virgin Galactic, which describes itself as “the world’s first commercial spaceline”. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, also a technology and retail entrepreneur, it plans to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and give them about six minutes of weightlessness in the course of a two and a half hour flight.

The technology differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin in that the launch into space is not from the ground, but from a jet airplane. This mothership flies to an altitude of about 18km (about twice as high as regular aircraft fly) and releases a smaller, rocket-powered spacecraft (SpaceShip Two) which is propelled to an altitude of about 100km. The program has been delayed by technical difficulties – and then by the tragic loss of pilot Mike Alsbury, when SpaceShip Two exploded in mid-air during a test flight in 2014. No date is yet set for the first passengers to fly.

There’s also the Google Lunar XPrize competition, announced in 2007, with the tagline: “Welcome to the new space race”. The aim of the prize is to launch a robotic mission to the moon, place a lander on the surface and drive 50 meters, sending back high-quality images and video. The competition is still in progress. Five privately funded teams must launch their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017.

Powerful international ties

The changes are taking place against a backdrop of tried and tested international collaboration in space, which took off in earnest at the end of the space race. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US and Russia space programs complemented each other beautifully – though perhaps not intentionally. Following the cessation of Apollo in 1975, the US space program focused its efforts on robotic exploration of the solar system.

The Voyager probes gave us amazing images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Mariner and Viking missions to Mars led to Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Messenger orbited Mercury and Magellan orbited Venus. When New Horizons launched to Pluto in 2006, it was a mission to visit the last planet left unexplored in the solar system.

Russia, on the other hand, pursued the goal of human spaceflight, with its incredibly successful Mir orbiting space station and its program of flights to transfer cosmonauts and cargo backwards and forwards to Mir. Human spaceflight in the US revived with the Space Shuttle and its mission to build and occupy the International Space Station (ISS). The list of nations that contribute to the ISS continues to grow. The shuttle program finished in 2011 and, since its successor Orion (built in collaboration with European Space Agency, ESA) is not due to come into service until at least 2023, the international community has been reliant on Russia to keep the ISS fueled and inhabited.

Today, as well as the US and Russia, there are strong, vibrant and successful space programs in Europe, Japan, India and China. The European Space Agency was established just two months before the historic handshake of 1975, following many years of independent aeronautical engineering research by individual nations. Similarly, the Chinese, Japanese and Indian space agencies can trace their heritages back to the 1960s. A number of smaller countries including the United Arab Emirates also have ambitious plans.

Of course these countries also compete against each other. There has been widespread speculation that the entry of China into the field was sufficient to introduce a fresh imperative to the US space program. China has a well-developed space program and is currently working towards having a space station in orbit around the Earth by about 2020. A prototype, Tiangong-2, has been in space for almost a year, and was occupied by two astronauts (or “taikonauts”) for a month.

China has also had three successful missions to the moon. And its next mission, Chang’e 5, due to launch towards the end of 2017, is designed to bring samples from the moon back to Earth. China also has a declared intent of landing taikonauts on the moon by 2025 – the same time frame in which the US will be testing its new Orion spacecraft in orbit around the moon.

But while there’s an element of competition, the success of the past few decades certainly shows that it is possible to collaborate in space even when tensions rise on the ground. Indeed, space exploration may even act as a buffer zone from international politics, which is surely something worth having. It will be interesting to see how a wider role in space exploration for private companies will affect such international collaborations, especially since so much of the effort is based in the USA.

Healthy competition or dangerous game?

A benefit of the entry of the private sector into space exploration has been recognition of the high-tech companies that contribute to the growth of the economy as valuable targets for investment. Indeed, a recent presentation at an international investment bank – under a heading of “Space; the next investment frontier” – declared that “investment interest has helped reduce launch costs and spur innovation across related industries, opening up a new chapter in the history of the space economy”.

One of the last engagements of Barack Obama’s presidency was to chair the Whitehouse Frontiers Conference, where space exploration was discussed as much within the context of US industry as within the drive to explore new worlds. Contributors to the conference included NASA – but overwhelmingly the speakers were from private technology and investment companies.

Perhaps it is cynical to say – but once investment starts to flow, lawyers won’t be far behind. And that is another aspect of the explosion of interest in space commerce and tourism. Laws, statutes and other regulations are necessary to govern the international nature of space exploration. At the moment, the United Nations, through its Office for Outer Space Affairs, is responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It also oversees operation of the Outer Space Treaty, which provides a framework for the governance of space and activities that might take place. While the obvious lack of “space police” means that it cannot be practically enforced, it has never actually been violated.

The operation is designed along similar lines to the international treaties that oversee maritime activities and the exploration of Antarctica. This is the closest that there is to international legislation and, since coming into operation in 1967 with the three inaugural signatories of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the (then) USSR, the treaty has been signed by 106 countries (including China and North Korea). It is necessary to have such controls because although the risks that surround space exploration are high, potential rewards are even higher.

If we look at the way more conventional businesses operate, such as supermarkets, competition drives prices down, and there is little reason to believe that competition between space companies would follow a different model. In which case, greater risks might be taken in order to increase profitability. There is no evidence for this so far – but as the field develops and additional private companies move into space exploration – there will be a higher probability of accident or emergency.

The treaty says that a state launching a probe or satellite is liable to pay compensation for damage when accidents occur. However, the costs of space exploration are astronomical and crippling to poorer countries, making them increasingly depend on commercial launchers. But if a private company launches an object that subsequently causes damage in space, the struggling economy will have to pick up the bill. The treaty may therefore need to be updated to make private companies more liable. There are also serious issues around the safety of astronauts, who have the legal right to a safe existence when in outer space. But even lawyers aren’t sure whether the law does – or should – extend to private astronauts.

Looking to the future, there will be a need for an expanded version of a Civil Aviation Authority, directing and controlling routes, launches and landings on Earth, and between and on planetary bodies. All the safety and security considerations of air and sea travel will pertain to space travel at a vastly enhanced level, because the costs and risks are so much higher.

There will have to be firm and well-understood protocols in the event of a spacecraft crashing, or two spacecraft colliding. Not to mention piracy or the possibility of hijack. All this might sound a little gloomy, taking the dash and exhilaration from space exploration, but it will be a necessary development that opens up the era of space travel for citizens beyond those with deep pockets.

The original space race resulted from the ideas and skills of visionary theoretician engineers including: Robert H Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky… Is it too far a stretch to think that the second space race is propelled by a new generation of entrepreneurs, including Bezos, Branson and Musk? If this is the situation, then I would hope that the main enabling factor in the pursuit of space endeavors is not possession of wealth, but that vision, ingenuity and a wish for the betterment of human are the main driving forces.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Private_companies_are_launching_a_new_space_race_999.html.

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US spacewalkers repair aging ISS robotic arm

Miami (AFP)

Oct 5, 2017

Two NASA astronauts wrapped up a successful spacewalk Thursday to repair the International Space Station’s aging robotic arm, the US space agency said.

The outing by Americans Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei ended at 3 pm (1900 GMT), marking a “very successful day,” a NASA spokesman said.

The spacewalk lasted six hours and 55 minutes, almost a half hour longer than planned because the pair managed to tack on a few extra jobs that had been planned for next week.

Their main work involved the latching end of the Canadian-made arm, known as Canadarm2.

They replaced one of two Latching End Effectors (LEE) which had lost the ability to grip effectively, said the US space agency.

The 57.7 foot-long (18 meter) arm was instrumental in assembling the space station and is used to reach out and grab approaching cargo ships.

The robotic arm has been a key piece of equipment at the orbiting outpost for more than 16 years, but began malfunctioning in August.

NASA wants to restore its full capability before the next US cargo ship arrives next month, carrying supplies for the six astronauts living in orbit.

Thursday’s spacewalk was the first of three scheduled spacewalks this month aimed at repairing and maintaining various pieces of equipment outside the ISS, and was the 203rd spacewalk in the history of the space station.

Vande Hei and Bresnik plan to step out on another spacewalk October 10, with the third set for October 18.

“The second and third spacewalks will be devoted to lubricating the newly installed end effector and replacing cameras on the left side of the station’s truss and the right side of the station’s US Destiny laboratory,” NASA said.

Source: Robo Daily.

Link: http://www.robodaily.com/reports/US_spacewalkers_repair_aging_ISS_robotic_arm_999.html.

The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago opened space era

October 04, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago opened the space era and became a major triumph for the Soviet Union, showcasing its military might and technological prowess. It also stunned the rest of the world.

Details of the development and the launch of the first artificial satellite were hidden behind the veil of secrecy that surrounded the Soviet space program and only became known decades later. A look at some little-known facts behind the Oct. 4, 1957, launch of the unmanned spacecraft:

A BYPRODUCT OF THE SOVIET MISSILE PROGRAM

Amid a tense Cold War arms race with the United States, the Soviet Union focused its efforts on building the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a hydrogen warhead to the U.S. The R-7 missile was built by a team led by Sergei Korolyov, and tests of the rocket began in 1957.

Korolyov, a visionary scientist and a shrewd manager at the same time, pressed the reluctant military brass to use one of the first R-7s to put a satellite in orbit. He warned Soviet leaders that the U.S. was also developing a satellite and won the Kremlin’s permission for the launch.

SIMPLE DESIGN

While there already was a project for a full-fledged scientific satellite, Korolyov ordered his team of engineers to design a primitive orbiter to save time and beat the U.S. into space. The craft, which was built in only a few months, was named PS-1, for “Prosteishiy Sputnik” — the “Simplest Satellite.”

The satellite, weighing less than 84 kilograms (about 184 pounds) and slightly larger than a basketball, was a pressurized sphere of polished aluminum alloy with two radio transmitters and four antennas.

An earlier satellite project envisaged a cone-shape vehicle, but Korolyov opted for the sphere. “The Earth is a sphere, and its first satellite also must have a spherical shape,” he was quoted as saying.

THE START OF SPACE AGE

While the rest of the world was stunned by the Soviet accomplishment, the Kremlin’s leadership seemed to be slow to grasp the scope of the event. The first official Soviet report of Sputnik’s launch was brief and buried deep inside the pages of Pravda, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper. Only two days after the launch did it come out with a banner headline and quotes of the foreign accolades.

LIGHT AND SOUND IN THE SKY

Sputnik contained a radio transmitter, broadcasting a distinctive “beep-beep-beep” sound. Pravda published a description of Sputnik’s orbit to help people watch it pass. However, it didn’t mention that the light seen moving across the night sky was in fact the spent booster rocket’s second stage, which was in roughly same orbit as the satellite. The tiny orbiter itself was invisible to the naked eye.

Sputnik orbited the Earth for three months before burning up in the atmosphere.

LEADING SPACE RACE

Thrilled by the global furor caused by Sputnik’s launch, the Kremlin immediately ordered Korolyov to launch a new satellite to mark the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. His team succeeded in building a spacecraft in less than a month, and on Nov. 3 launched Sputnik 2, which weighed about 508 kilograms (1,120 pounds). It carried the world’s first passenger, a dog named Laika. While the dog died of the heat soon after the launch, the flight proved that a living being could survive in space.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union made another giant leap ahead of the United States when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The Soviet lead in space prompted the U.S. to pour money into research and technology. In 1969, the U.S. won the race to land the first man on the moon, while the Soviet program collapsed in a series of booster rocket explosions.

UNKNOWN HERO

Amid the shroud of secrecy around the Soviet rocket and space program, Korolyov was never mentioned in any contemporary accounts of the launch. His key role was known only to a small circle of senior Soviet officials and space engineers.

Korolyov was only allowed to publish the non-secret parts of his research under the pseudonym “Professor K. Sergeyev,” while Leonid Sedov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences with no connection to space program, was erroneously praised in the West as the Father of Sputnik.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the Nobel committee’s offer to nominate Sputnik’s designer for a prize, insisting it was the achievement of “the entire Soviet people.” Korolyov’s daughter, Natalia, recalled later that her father sometimes felt bitter about the secrecy. “We are like miners — we work underground,” she quoted him saying. “No one sees or hears us.”

Ultrathin spacecraft will collect, deposit orbital debris

Los Angeles CA (Sputnik)

Sep 13, 2017

A new design gaining the interest of NASA could see the inexpensive and efficient removal of Earth’s orbiting space debris.

A proposed design for a space trash collector has received a second round of funding from NASA, and the technologies involved could benefit developments in miniaturization back on Earth. A flat quadrilateral, a sort of magic carpet less than the thickness of a human hair and about three feet on a side, would incorporate redundant microelectronic and other digital technologies, as well as the propellant to allow the device to be moved around in orbit.

Upon arriving in close proximity to one of the estimated 520,000 of bits of detectable human-made space junk dangerously cluttering up near-Earth regions, the device, known as a ‘Brane craft,’ would wrap itself around the orbiting offal and direct both objects to an uncontrolled descent into our planet’s atmosphere, at which point the trash and the collector would be on track to be immolated by the intense heat and pressure of reentry.

The space-cleaning carpet, the brainchild of California-based Aerospace Corporation, itself would be subject to the same risks it is designed to ameliorate, so it will be built with multiple backups – crafted in such a way that a tiny particle shooting through it at extremely high velocities of up to 17,500 mph would not incapacitate the device.

NASA says that it tracks around 20,000 pieces of orbital trash larger than a softball – just under four inches – orbiting the Earth, and these objects travel fast enough to damage satellites and spacecraft, placing astronauts at risk.

And while there are known to be at least 500,000 pieces of orbiting garbage the size of a marble, or bigger, there are thought to be millions upon millions of tiny bits speeding around the planet that are small enough to avoid detection, but not small enough to stop a spacewalker from being hurt or killed.

The skinny space cleaner is designed to be stackable, for easy shipping aboard a launcher, and would be deployed in swarms that can be organized to work in concert or alone – each directed to specific coordinates that can be modified at will, according to space.com.

Preparing the tech for real-world testing will take several million dollars at a minimum, according to Aerospace’s principal investigator and a senior scientist Siegfried Janson.

“We’re looking at how we can get government or other companies interested in this to take this to the next level,” Janson said, cited by space.com.

Company assertions claim that if enough of the Brane craft are deployed, almost every detectable piece of space trash weighing up to 2 pounds or less could be eliminated from orbit within a decade.

NASA, hedging its bets, provides low-level proof-of-concept funding for many near-Earth garbage-collection technologies.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Ultrathin_spacecraft_will_collect_deposit_orbital_debris_999.html.

Three astronauts blast off for five-month ISS mission

By Kirill Kudryavtsev

Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP)

Sept 12, 2017

Two US astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut blasted off for the International Space Station in a nighttime launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early Wednesday, heading for a five-month mission.

The Soyuz MS-06 rocket carrying Alexander Misurkin of the Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, NASA first-time flyer Mark Vande Hei and his veteran colleague Joe Acaba launched as scheduled at 3:17 am (2117 GMT), according to images broadcast live by Roscosmos.

After a roughly six-hour flight, the spacecraft is expected to dock at around 0300 GMT on Wednesday, where the astronauts will join Paolo Nespoli of Italy, Sergey Riazanski of Russia and Randy Bresnik of the US.

The launch marks the first time two US astronauts have blasted off together on a mission to the ISS from Russia’s Baikonur since June 2010.

The American space agency stopped its own manned launches to the ISS in 2011 but recently moved to increase its crew complement aboard the orbital lab as the Russians cut theirs in a cost-saving measure announced last year.

Acaba, 50, has spent nearly 138 days in space over two missions, while Vande Hei, 50, served with the US army in Iraq before training as an astronaut.

Misurkin, 39, who is beginning his second mission aboard the ISS, also has a military background.

Speaking at the pre-launch news conference on Monday, Acaba, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, said he would be taking some “musica Latina” on board to lift his crewmates’ spirits.

“I can guarantee my crewmates they will not fall asleep during that music and if you want to dance at about 3 am tuned into our Soyuz capsule I think you’ll enjoy it,” he told journalists.

– ‘Praying for people’ –

The launch has been overshadowed by deadly storms that have battered the Caribbean and the southern half of the United States.

External cameras on the ISS captured footage of hurricane Irma last week brewing over the Atlantic as it prepared to wreak deadly havoc.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston said earlier this month it suffered “significant” damage during Hurricane Harvey, although Mission Control remained operational.

Vande Hei struck a somber note in a pre-launch tweet on Monday.

“L-2 days. Sunrise over Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Praying for the people of Florida as well as the continued recovery of the Texas Gulf Coast,” he said.

Space is one of the few areas of international cooperation between Russia and the US that has not been wrecked by tensions over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

The ISS orbits the Earth at a height of about 250 miles (400 kilometres), circling the planet every 90 minutes at a speed of about 17,500 miles (28,000 kilometres) per hour.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Three_astronauts_blast_off_for_five-month_ISS_mission_999.html.

Discovery of boron on Mars adds to evidence for habitability

Los Alamos NM (SPX)

Sep 07, 2017

The discovery of boron on Mars gives scientists more clues about whether life could have ever existed on the planet, according to a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet,” said Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author on the paper. “Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

RNA (ribonucleic acid) is a nucleic acid present in all modern life, but scientists have long hypothesized an “RNA World,” where the first proto-life was made of individual RNA strands that both contained genetic information and could copy itself. A key ingredient of RNA is a sugar called ribose. But sugars are notoriously unstable; they decompose quickly in water. The ribose would need another element there to stabilize it.

That’s where boron comes in. When boron is dissolved in water – becoming borate – it will react with the ribose and stabilize it for long enough to make RNA.

“We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth,” said Gasda. “Essentially, this tells us that the conditions from which life could have potentially grown may have existed on ancient Mars, independent from Earth.”

The boron found on Mars was discovered in calcium sulfate mineral veins, meaning the boron was present in Mars groundwater, and provides another indication that some of the groundwater in Gale Cater was habitable, ranging between 0-60 degrees Celsius (32-140 degrees Fahrenheit) and with neutral-to-alkaline pH.

The boron was identified by the rover’s laser-shooting ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera) instrument, which was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with the French space agency. Los Alamos’ work on discovery-driven instruments like ChemCam stems from the Laboratory’s experience building and operating more than 500 spacecraft instruments for national defense.

The discovery of boron is only one of several recent findings related to the composition of Martian rocks. Curiosity is climbing a layered Martian mountain and finding chemical evidence of how ancient lakes and wet underground environments changed, billions of years ago, in ways that affected their potential favorability for microbial life.

As the rover has progressed uphill, compositions trend toward more clay and more boron. These and other chemical variations can tell us about conditions under which sediments were initially deposited and about how later groundwater moving through the accumulated layers altered and transported dissolved elements, including boron.

Whether Martian life has ever existed is still unknown. No compelling evidence for it has been found. When Curiosity landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in 2012 the mission’s main goal was to determine whether the area ever offered a habitable environment, which has since been confirmed.

The Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with an instrument called “SuperCam,” developed by Los Alamos and an instrument called SHERLOC, which was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with significant participation by Los Alamos. Both of these will search for signs of past life on the planet.

Source: Mars Daily.

Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Discovery_of_boron_on_Mars_adds_to_evidence_for_habitability_999.html.

Steampunk Rover Could Explore Hellish Venus

By Mike Wall, Space.com

September 6, 2017

Researchers are studying the possibility of building a steampunk Venus rover, which would forsake electronics in favor of analog equipment, such as levers and gears, to the extent possible.

“Venus is too inhospitable for the kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” project leader Jonathan Sauder, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.

“Inhospitable” may be a bit of an understatement. Thanks to Venus’ thick atmosphere, pressures on the planet’s surface are high enough to crush the hull of a nuclear submarine, NASA officials said. That same atmosphere has also spawned a runaway greenhouse effect: Venus’ average surface temperature is a whopping 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to melt lead (not to mention standard electronics).

No spacecraft has ever survived these conditions for more than 127 minutes, and none has even tried for more than three decades; the last probes to reach the Venusian surface were the Soviet Union’s twin Vega 1 and Vega 2 landers, which launched in 1984.

So Sauder and his team are thinking creatively, drawing inspiration from mechanical computers such as Charles Babbage’s famous 19th-century Difference Engine and the intricate Antikythera mechanism, which the ancient Greeks used to predict eclipses and perform a variety of other celestial calculations.

They’re developing their concept vehicle, known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), using two rounds of funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. NIAC grants are intended to help nurture potentially revolutionary space science and exploration ideas.

“In Phase 1, purely mechanical rover technologies were compared to a high-temperature electronics rover and hybrid rover technologies,” Sauder and his colleagues wrote in a description of the project. “A purely mechanical rover, while feasible, was found to not be practical, and a high-temperature electronics rover is not possible with the current technology, but a hybrid rover is extremely compelling.”

This hybrid rover, as currently envisioned, would trundle across Venus not on wheels but on treads, like a tank. Most of its power would be generated by an onboard wind turbine, though roof-mounted solar panels would help as well.

The team’s current plans also call for AREE to feature a radar target with a rotating shutter, which would allow the rover to selectively bounce back radar signals from an overhead orbiter. As such, AREE could relay data in an old-fashioned, Morse-code sort of way.

“When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there,” JPL engineer Evan Hilgemann, who’s working on AREE high-temperature designs, said in the same statement. “It’s an environment we don’t know much about beyond what we’ve seen in Soviet-era images.”

Source: SPACE.com.

Link: https://www.space.com/37994-nasa-steampunk-venus-rover-concept.html.

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