Sailing, sailing, over the bounding interplanetary main

Edward Willett @ 16-04-2008

solar sailI’ve always loved the idea of the solar sail, giant glistening sails that use solar radiation to propel a ship through the solar system (as in the image at left).

But the Finnish Meterological Institute has come up with a better way to utilize that radiation for spacecraft propulsion, “by using long metallic tethers and a solar-powered electron gun to create an ‘electric sail.'” (Via Gizmag.)

Invented in 2006 at the Kumpula Space Centre, the electric solar wind sail, alas, loses some of the romance of the traditional solar sail: it looks more like an antenna (view an animation here):

A full-scale version would consist of up to 100 thin conducting wires as long as 20 km that are kept in a high positive potential by the spacecraft’s on-board solar-powered electron gun. This electric field effectively turns the wires into 50 meter wide sails that can then make use of solar wind. It’s estimated that a 20km long electric sail wire (which weighs only a few hundred grams and fits in a small reel) is equivalent to a one square kilometer solar wind sail when deployed in this way.

Planning for a test mission has begun, and the researchers note that the same technology could also assist in the development of solar power satellites.

In 2004 NASA’s Solar Sail Propulsion Team successfully deployed two 10-meter solar sails made of reflective material 40 to 100 times thinner than a piece of writing paper in a laboratory vacuum environment. But the first solar sail spacecraft, Cosmos 1, failed to enter orbit after its 2005 launch.  (UPDATE: Not, as commentator Anthony points out, due to any fault of the solar sails, but due to a rocket booster failure.)

(Image: John Ballentine.)

[tags]space exploration, solar sails, space travel, solar power[/tags]


To sleep, perchance to dream…

Edward Willett @ 26-03-2008

labmice A long-time staple of science fiction has been the concept of suspended animation. It’s one of the ways to get around the immensely long travel times astronauts heading to the outer planets or other solar systems must endure. The usual SFnal approach has been “cold sleep,” where the suspended animation is achieved by means of extremely low temperatures: a kind of cryogenic suspension, with undefined futuristic technology somehow prevent cell damage and death in the human icicles.

Turns out, there just might be another way: low doses of hydrogen sulfide, the stinky gas that is responsible for the unpleasant odor of rotten eggs, and which is fatal in large doses, can, in small, controlled doses, safely and reversibly depress both metabolism and cardiovascular function in mice, producing a suspended-animation  like state (Via EurekAlert):

In all the mice, metabolic measurements such as consumption of oxygen and production of carbon dioxide dropped in as little as 10 minutes after they began inhaling hydrogen sulfide, remained low as long as the gas was administered, and returned to normal within 30 minutes of the resumption of a normal air supply. The animals’ heart rate dropped nearly 50 percent during hydrogen sulfide adminstration, but there was no significant change in blood pressure or the strength of the heart beat. While respiration rate also decreased, there were no changes in blood oxygen levels, suggesting that vital organs were not at risk of oxygen starvation.

Of course, it’s always a large and fraught step from mice to humans, but if this discovery is transferable to humans, it could be used to allow organ function to be preserved when oxygen supply is limited, such as after a traumatic injury, the researchers say. the next step will be to study the use of hydrogen sulfide in larger mammals. It’s possible, they say, that in larger mammals hydrogen sulfide could be delivered via intravenous drugs, which would prevent lung toxicity.

Warren Zapol, MD, the chief of Anesthesia and Critical Care at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior author of the study, sums it up: “This is as close to instant suspended animation as you can get, and the preservation of cardiac contraction, blood pressure and organ perfusion is remarkable.”

Start booking those flights to Alpha Centauri!

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

[tags]medicine, suspended animation, mice, space travel[/tags]


European company plans to mass-produce sub-orbital spaceplanes

Edward Willett @ 18-03-2008

EADS Astrium spaceplane in flight Astrium, the division of the European aerospace company EADS that makes the Ariane rocket, plans to mass-produce a commercial vehicle to take passengers on jaunts above the 100 km altitude that marks the edge of space. (Via BBC.)

Astrium’s market assessment suggests there would be 15,000 people a year willing to pay 200,000 euros for the trip, enough to support a production line turning about about 10 spaceplanes a year.

Robert Laine, CTO of EADS Astrium, announced while delivering the 99th Kelvin Lecture at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London.

Astrium doesn’t intend to fly the craft itself, but supply them to companies that want to start up a space tourism business.

How far along are they? They’ve done wind-tunnel testing; and run the rocket engine for up to 31 seconds. The plan is for the four-passenger, single-pilot craft to take off using regular jet engines, climb to 12 km, then ignite the rocket to shoot straight up, climbing beyond 60 km in just 80 seconds, then riding its velocity to the 100 km level and beyond.Once it has re-entered the atmosphere, the jet engines take over again for the landing. (Watch an animation: I particularly like the opening text of “Until now, the closest you could get to your dream of travelling into space was to immerse yourself in a good science fiction novel…”)

Laine believes this is the first step toward super-fast intercontinental passenger transporters:

“Today we don’t know how to go to space cheaply. Being able to climb on a regular basis to 100km will give us the motivation to develop the plane that goes, not just up and down to the same place, but from here to the other side of the Earth.

“When the Ariane 5 takes off, 15 minutes later it is over Europe; and 45 minutes later it is over the Pacific. The fastest way is to go outside the atmosphere and that will be the future.”

I’d love to ride one of these things…but not for 200,000 euros. Give it time, though, and the price will surely come down.

(Image © EADS Astrium / images MasterImage 2007)

[tags]space travel, space tourism, aerospace, transportation[/tags]


Space travel without propellant

Edward Willett @ 03-10-2007

800px-Aurora-SpaceShuttle-EO

"Fuel? We won’t need no stinkin’ fuel for our spacecraft!" might be the motto of the Cornell Planetary Magnetic Fields Propulsion research team. Led by Dr. Mason Peck, the team envisions spacecraft that would be able to surf planetary magnetic fields, requiring little if any propellant. The effect to be harnessed, known as Lorentz forces, is small, so the spacecraft would likewise have to be small: imagine a swarm of millions of craft, each the size and mass of a single silicon wafer, gathering information, providing communications, or creating a distributed-aperture telescope kilometres in diameter. Such tiny, lightweight craft might even be perfect for the first trip to another star system. (Via Centauri Dreams.)

Hey, at 1/10th light speed, Proxima Centauri is only 43 years away… (Photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]space travel, propulsion, spacecraft, technology[/tags]


In space, no one can hear you hiss

Edward Willett @ 02-10-2007

Astronaut on board the International Space Station It’s a staple of SF: something punctures the hull of a spacecraft and crew members, alerted by the hiss of escaping air, scramble to plug up the leak.

Just one problem: in real space, no one can hear the hiss of escaping air, because it’s venting out into vacuum. And real spacecraft, unlike their fictional counterparts, seldom have nice smooth unblemished hulls where holes can be easily located: instead, every square inch is jammed with equipment. Which is why a research team from Iowa has developed a square sensor just an inch across that provides a computer with enough information to locate a leak in about a minute–as opposed to weeks with NASA’s current handheld devices. (Via ScienceDaily.)

Just the thing for long trips to Mars–and space junk-filled near-Earth orbits, too. (Photo from NASA via Science Daily.)

[tags]space travel, NASA, space junk, technology[/tags]


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