Archive for the ‘L is for Lift’ Category

Google Lunar X Prize: Onwards to the Moon

Monday, March 14th, 2011

The list is in: An official roster of 29 registered teams selected to compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, an unprecedented competition to send a robot to the Moon that travels at least 500 meters and transmit video, images, and data back to the Earth.

The global competition, the largest in history, was announced in September 2007, with a winner projected by 2015.

The winning team will need to complete its mission before December 31, 2015 to win the $20 million first prize ($15 million if the winning team is a government agency). Other prizes will be awarded for feats such as surviving the freezing lunar night or traveling five kilometers, for finding water, touching down near an Apollo landing site, and for “stimulating diversity” in space exploration.

Plans to transport the robotic vehicles to the Moon include US government-backed space agencies, private US agencies such as SpaceX, a company set up by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, and agencies in Russia, China, and elsewhere.

The announcement of the official roster of registered teams comes at a time when this new era of lunar exploration has received great recognition and credibility. Recently, NASA, the U.S. civil space agency, announced that it will purchase data related to innovative lunar missions from six Google Lunar X PRIZE teams, with contracts worth as much as $10 million each. These purchases demonstrate how public and private space exploration alike will play an important role in making missions to the Moon financially sustainable.

via Google XPrize

Periodic Table

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Space Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow tells SPTNK in a short time there will be no comparison between the technologies of those with robust, large facilities in microgravity and those that are terrestrial bound.

Listen here: Robert Bigelow – Periodic Table

Launching Monday 18 October 2010

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Virgin Galactic provides exclusive documentary coverage of maverick entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and legendary aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan as they strive to be first to make space tourism an everyday reality. Also included in the premiere episode will be the backstory of the venture, including Rutan’s win of the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne.

The documentary reveals unseen behind the scenes footage, showing a journey of innovation, genius and hard work by Burt Rutan and the amazing team at Scaled Composites. This, powered by the vision of Sir Richard Branson, has promised to make space travel a reality.

Click here to preview the first episode of the documentary now, and tune into NGC on Monday, October 18, at 10 pm ET/PT to see the whole story!

(This will be repeated on Sunday 24th October at 8 pm and 11 pm and Monday 25th October at 6 pm ET/PT)

Visit the Virgin Galactic website to read more.

Bigelow’s Space Station

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Prototypes of Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer habitat via Bigelow Aerospace

In 2014, Bigelow Aerospace, a private space development company in Las Vegas founded by Robert Bigelow, is set to launch a space station that will be leased to governments, companies and perhaps space tourists. Its activities in space are planned to dwarf those of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other governmental space agencies.

Central to this future space station is the Sundancer, an expandable space habitat being developed by Bigelow Aerospace. Fabricated mainly of multiple layers of a Kevlar-type material, Sundancer is launched unmanned, designed to be packed inside a small payload area. It then expands into its full volume once in orbit.

A full-sized model of this future space station sits on the warehouse of Bigelow Aerospace factory, prototypes of the inflatable Sundancer arranged into what will become the solar system’s first private space station. Paying customers — primarily nations that do not have the money or expertise to build a space program from scratch — would arrive a year later. The future space station consists of two of these Sundancers and one larger habitat that is linked via a node similar to the International Space Station Unity module.

Mr. Bigelow has spent about $180 million of his own money so far and has said he is willing to spend up to $320 million more. The plan is that in 2014, Sundancers begin their voyage to create a space station. One year later (2015), the first paying customers—mainly nations that do not have the money or expertise to build a space program from scratch, will arrive. And in 2016, a second, larger station would follow. The two Bigelow stations would then be home to 36 people at a time — six times as many as currently live on the International Space Station.

A stay on a Bigelow station, including transportation, is currently priced at just under $25 million a person for 30 days. That is less than half the more than $50 million a seat that NASA is paying for rides alone on Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. Doubling the stay to 60 days adds just $3.75 million more.

Bigelow currently has two fully inflated test modules in orbit already, and if plans go to schedule, the company will be buying 15 to 20 rocket launchings in 2017 and in each year after, providing ample business for the private companies that will be part of the so-called commercial crew initiative, where governments (including NASA) and other enterprises buy rides for astronauts into orbit.  Boeing is currently developing a new capsule that will  act like a ‘space taxi’, transporting the crew to and from Sundancer.

Sundancer is the third prototype for Bigelow Aerospace following the successful launches of Genesis 1 in July 2006 and Genesis II in June 2007.

via Bigelow Aerospace and New York Times

Known for not granting many interviews, space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow first discussed in 2002 his vision of what we will experience when we habitat space with the Sputnik Observatory:

Just the fact of moving ourselves out into space someday, eventually humans will bump into an extraterrestrial sooner or later. That’s going to become an event, for sure. And that will be a significant consciousness-changing event. Wouldn’t it be interesting? Imagine what you could share. But again you get into that, as you remove yourself from a city into a rural environment, you see how people behave differently, usually. Things are usually a little bit more calm down on the ranch. So there is probably going to be a different kind of behavior and different kind of culture that would emanate from a colony on Mars. Even if there were 10 or 20 or 30-thousand people, or on some huge orbiting space station facility of some sort. There would be significant differences between those folks and those folks back on home, back on terraform, Earth. And especially if they were allowed to be there for a few generations, and you look back and they were there for like 50 years on that colony on Mars, were growing and were around for 50 years, and somebody who was born and raised there finally made a trip to planet Earth. You could imagine that would be quite an interesting experience. For both sides. Suppose the Earthlings had never seen that colony, nobody from that colony had ever visited Earth – and you had this large number of people, that were thriving, thousands, and nobody had visited Earth for some reason, just in theory. You would probably have, it would not be just like meeting somebody from a different country, it would be a very interesting exchange. So I imagine as you expand that on out, those differences are going to grow, even if the physiology doesn’t change, but physically I think there would be some significant physical changes because of the gravitational influences.

A Giant Leap for Humanoid Kind

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Photo by NASA/GM

NASA and GM are are working on an advanced humanoid robot that could soon hitch a ride into space. Called “Robonauts,” these next generation space explorers may perform similar scientific tasks to astronauts, but wouldn’t require any of the life support equipment or shelter. The first robonaut could travel to the space station to work side by side with astronauts in the next three years.

Unlike NASA’s Mars Rovers, the first of these humanoid robots, called Robonaut 2, is designed to closely mimic the shape, movement, and behavior of a human. This could make it ideally suited to working alongside humans, or for testing human spacecraft and living quarters, but it also presents some unique engineering challenges. GM hopes to use the robots in its manufacturing plants and to incorporate the resulting technology into some of its products, including vehicle safety systems.

The engineers behind Robonaut2 began working on the robot in 2007; its design originated from a version that NASA created more than 10 years ago.

Robonaut2 currently consists of just an upper torso. It weighs about 45 kilograms and is equipped with over 350 sensors. These include tactile sensors on the contact points of the robot’s fingers and its palms, and proximity sensors in its arms. Engineers have also built springs and elastic materials in the joints to give the robot better control and flexibility, and to allow it to move at faster, more humanlike speeds. The robot can carry payloads of about nine kilograms–four times more than other humanoid robots.

via Technology Review

From Pyramids to Spacecraft

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Photo via Architecture and Vision

“From Pyramids to Spacecraft” is a travelling exhibition by design studio Architecture and Vision, founded by Italian architect Arturo Vittori and Swiss architect Andreas Vogler. The exhibition will appear at The Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis from March 14-May 2nd, 2010.

Projects shown in the exhibition include MoonBaseTwo, an inflatable space station for conducting experiments on the Moon, First and Business Class for Asiana Airlines, La Macchina di Santa Rosa di Viterbo and the MercuryHouseOne, which was presented at the Biennale in Venice in 2009 as well as many other inspiring projects ranging from product design to architecture.

Vittori and Vogler are known for their keen interest in technology and the endless beauty of the world. It is their  work in the aerospace field that has challenged the way they think about life on Earth. They share the belief that respect of nature and the intelligent use and development of its resources can have a deep impact on the quality of our lives.

Sponsored by: College of Design, Goldstein Museum of Design, Consulate General of Switzerland of Chicago, Italian Cultural Institute Chicago.

Obama Administration Plans to Outsource NASA

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Photo via flickr by Matheus Sanchez

The White House has decided to begin funding private companies to carry NASA astronauts into space, but the proposal faces major political and budget hurdles, according to people familiar with the matter.

The controversial proposal, expected to be included in the Obama administration’s next budget, would open a new chapter in the U.S. space program. The goal is to set up a multiyear, multi-billion-dollar initiative allowing private firms, including some start-ups, to compete to build and operate spacecraft capable of ferrying U.S. astronauts into orbit—and eventually deeper into the solar system.

Congress is likely to challenge the concept’s safety and may balk at shifting dollars from existing National Aeronautics and Space Administration programs already hurting for funding to the new initiative. Press officials for NASA and the White House have declined to comment. Industry and government officials have talked about the direction of the next NASA budget, but declined to be identified.

The idea of outsourcing a portion of NASA’s manned space program to the private sector gained momentum after recommendations from a presidential panel appointed last year. The panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman Augustine, argued that allowing companies to build and launch their own rockets and spacecraft to carry American astronauts into orbit would save money and also free up NASA to focus on more ambitious, longer-term goals.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is one of the start-up commercial ventures likely to gain from the proposed policy shift. But other large incumbent NASA contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. also are likely to compete for some of the anticipated government seed money earmarked for new commercial ventures.
via Wall Street Journal

Following is an Open Letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden from Robert Bigelow written on October 14, 2009 advocating the importance of “commercial space.”

An Open Letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden From Robert Bigelow

Robert T. Bigelow
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On behalf of myself and all of us at Bigelow Aerospace let me first congratulate you on becoming NASA administrator. I’m sure the joy you must feel in being entrusted with leading such an extraordinary organization is only rivaled by the difficulty of the decisions you are now facing.

We appreciated the fact that you and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver took the time to meet with commercial space executives and, as we expressed during that meeting, Bigelow Aerospace remains a strong supporter of commercial crew transportation. However, in that discussion last month, and in subsequent public appearances, you have consistently voiced a concern and a question. Specifically, you have often commented on the importance of commercial space transportation providers proving themselves via cargo delivery, and have asked the question what is the definition of “commercial space.” I hope we can help you to address both of these issues, and I will begin with cargo delivery.

Your request that commercial providers should prove themselves via cargo delivery is easily answered since it has already occurred. As a matter of fact, mere hours after the commercial space meeting you convened in delivering a communications satellite. Many of the misconceptions surrounding “commercial” space transportation spring from the fact that the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 are being left out of the discussion. As you’re probably aware, Bigelow Aerospace has invested a great deal of time and money examining the viability of the Atlas 5 as a commercial crew carrier, and these analyses have made us a strong supporter of the system. The reason we are so enthusiastic about the Atlas 5 is largely because it addresses the very concern that you’re voicing, the Atlas 5 rocket has time and time again proven itself capable of reliably launching high-value cargo. As a matter of fact, the Atlas 5 is unquestionably one of the most reliable and safest space launch systems in operation today. The Atlas family has had many dozens of consecutive successful launches, an unparalleled track record, making it the perfect choice for human-rating, since, ultimately, a great deal of “human-rating” is providing proven flight heritage.

This is not to say that we don’t have great hope for and belief in Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the Falcon 9. We believe that SpaceX has the potential to revolutionize the launch market. However, when the commercial crew transportation debate is artificially limited to only the two current participants of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and the Atlas 5 is ignored, as it was during the congressional hearing in the House several weeks ago, this leads to a flawed discussion and problematic conclusions. We don’t know if the House authorizers avoided talking about the Atlas due to bias, ignorance or a combination of both, but we have faith that you and President Barack Obama’s White House are not suffering from a similarly limited vision.

Therefore, to answer your concern, a commercial crew rocket has not only proven itself capable of delivering cargo worth billions of dollars, but, in the form of the Atlas, has been doing so for decades.

Next, you ask a much more difficult question, what is “commercial space.” There can be many responses to this query, and, as you have pointed out, if you line up three entrepreneurs they will likely give you a half dozen answers. However, we believe there are several general principles that separate “commercial space” from traditional programs. First, “commercial” initiatives are allowed to fail. Per the COTS structure, if a commercial project’s budget skyrockets, or if key technical milestones are abrogated, the initiative is shut down (this is why Kistler’s removal from the COTS program was actually a triumph in good government contracting). Also integral to this concept is the requirement of firm, fixed pricing. Again, the COTS program serves as an excellent example of this strategy, since it utilizes a firm, fixed amount of government funding tied to achieving specific milestones. In the end, “commercial” space is less about who is doing the work than the means of procurement. When NASA needs to send some international space station hardware or documents quickly overseas, it doesn’t build a boat, you use Federal Express or some other commercial carrier. NASA simply buys a service, at a fixed price, and steps away. By funding a commercial crew program that follows this COTS model, you can make the commercial purchase of space transportation a reality, freeing NASA forever from the shackles of low Earth orbit (LEO).

Additionally, it’s just as important to ask what commercial space isn’t, because there are many misconceptions there as well. Commercial does not inherently equal small or unproven, as demonstrated consistently by the Atlas and Delta rockets. Moreover, we recently teamed with Boeing, and together submitted a proposal for the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Some have tried to marginalize commercial crew as a risky strategy due to the lack of performance and experience of the companies involved. Boeing submitting a CCDev proposal and its desire to become a leader in the commercial space field flies in the face of such criticism. Arguably, no one has more experience in human spaceflight than Boeing, and to ignore their powerful entrance into the commercial crew transportation arena is to do a great disservice to the field itself and the current debate.

Both large, experienced companies like Boeing, and new entrepreneurial firms like Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX, believe in the value of commercial crew. The Atlas 5 has already proven itself more than capable of delivering high-value cargo, and, if a commercial crew program is initiated, the Atlas will readily prove itself capable of delivering crew to LEO. Herein lies the answer to your human spaceflight dilemma. A commercial crew program can easily return Americans to space in a mere four years for the amount of funding recommended by the Augustine Committee.

America has already abdicated its leadership in commercial space launch, with nearly all such activities being conducted by Russian, European, Indian or Chinese entities. Our commercial satellite manufacturing base has also steadily been slipping away, and the decisions you make in the near future will determine if commercial crew transportation becomes yet another domestic industry whose jobs and capabilities are permanently shipped overseas.

As you are well aware, future U.S. access to space will soon be entirely dependent on Russia. The Russians are excellent capitalists, and you should expect prices to rise above the already stunning $51 million per seat that NASA is currently paying during every subsequent Soyuz contract negotiation. A robust commercial crew program represents this nation’s only hope of reversing this deplorable situation and reviving America’s human spaceflight capabilities. If you choose this path, it will free NASA both in terms of substance and financing to look beyond LEO, leaving the agency to again become a trailblazer to the stars.

Robert T. Bigelow is the founder of Bigelow Aerospace.

NASA Studies Butterflies in Space

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Photo via flickr by tiswango

Astronauts are not the only ones earning wings on the International Space Station. Butterflies emerged aboard the station recently, to the delight of science students across the country.

The butterfly experiment, which included stunning Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies, is focused on stimulating science education across  the country by studying the insects’ development and behavior in microgravity. Hundreds of science teachers are participating with ground-based versions of the study and sharing the excitement with their students. The Monarchs were the first to be sent into space, while the Painted Ladies were the first to undergo a full metamorphosis from larva to pupa to adult while in orbit. Dr. Nancy Moreno, professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, is the project’s principal investigator.

Powering Human Outposts on Moon or Mars

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Photo via flickr by Vattenfall

Three recent tests at different NASA centers and a national lab have successfully demonstrated key technologies required for compact fission-based nuclear power plants—the size of a trash can— for human settlements on other worlds.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., offers a one-of-a-kind test facility which, without using nuclear materials, enables engineers to simulate the nuclear power process of heat transfer from a reactor to a power converter.

“The recent tests bear out that Fission surface power system could be an important source of energy for exploration on the moon and Mars,” said Mike Houts, project manager for nuclear systems at Marshall. “This power system could provide an abundant source of reliable, cost-effective energy and may be used anywhere on the lunar surface.”

For this particular test series, the Marshall reactor simulator was linked to a Stirling engine, developed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which converts heat into electricity. The testing may well be a key factor in demonstrating the readiness of fission surface power technology, and could provide NASA with an efficient and robust system to produce power in the harsh environment on the moon and Mars.

NASA’s current plan for human space exploration is to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 on expeditions that could lead to a permanent outpost for exploring the lunar surface and testing technologies that could aid a manned mission to Mars.

The space agency has been studying the feasibility of using nuclear fission power generators to support future moon bases. Engineers performed tests in recent weeks as part of a joint effort by NASA and the Department of Energy.

The next step for NASA’s fission power project is to combine its radiator, engine and alternator successes into a single non-nuclear power plant demonstration. That test is slated to begin in 2012, NASA officials said.

via ScienceDaily and NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

In a conversation with Sputnik Observatory, Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, explained how nuclear power will support our galactic missions for decades:

As time goes on and, especially, as we try to go out to the outer planets we need to have new power supplies than simply solar converters. The reason for this is the farther away you go from the Sun, the less the intensity of energy hitting the solar panels, the less electricity is generated. And, at some point, you need too large solar panel to be feasible to deliver to some place out near Jupiter, or Saturn, or Uranus or something. So we need to reinstitute use of nuclear power, typically isotopic generators, using some radioactive material to generate electricity. Perhaps, in the longer term, we could even consider using nuclear reactors onboard these spacecraft in the same way we have used nuclear reactors onboard ships at sea in the Navy. I know that there are environmental concerns about the use of nuclear power in space, partly because during the launch phase, if anything goes wrong, people are concerned that if you crash you may splatter radioactive material around, and that would cause a lot of trouble. There are reactor designs that are quite robust when it comes to inhibiting the presence of radioactive material until after the reactor has actually been started, which we wouldn’t start until long after the launch was successful. So there are reasonable ideas, in my view anyway, to ultimately be able to use nuclear reactor power in space and, certainly, isotopic generators. The importance of that is they last longer. So we can be talking about missions with enough power to support them for decades as opposed to months. And where it is, the side effect of that is that as time goes on, if we follow that path, there will be more and more spacecraft in operation concurrently throughout the solar system. That’s not too different than what we have experienced here on Earth.

Failure Is Not An Option

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Photo via flickr by kevincollins

As the nation continues the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, NASA biologist Thomas Goodwin provides a glimpse of what we can expect in the coming decade as NASA continues its inspirational mission of discovery.


From a conversation with Sputnik Observatory.

Sputnik Observatory: What happens to cells in space?

Thomas Goodwin: I think what you can say about microgravity is that, again, from the data that we have so far, what we think is happening is the cells, or the genome of the human cell, has a memory of sorts. Sort of like loosely associated with what you would compare a computer to have a memory – once something is stored in the memory, even though you don’t use it for a long time, if you know where to go to find it, you can go back and access that information and bring it forward and use it. By the same token, the genetic composition of the human cell has all of the ability to go back, we think, and pull up information, not only from our generation but from generations past. Because, as we know, we’ve evolved as an organism through hundreds of thousands of years and that evolutionary process is all stored in our genetic makeup. So if we understand the right signals to give the cell, the right codes, if you will, then we can go back and get the cell to express things that it hasn’t expressed in a long time, or we can get it to express things, for example, that it expressed in the embryonic state.