Monday, June 4, 2018

Farewell Alan Bean…..

With previous career as a naval aviator and a test pilot, does Alan Bean represent our impression as a “stereotypical NASA astronaut”?

By: Ringo Bones 

When the “first batches” of astronauts destined for space travel was set-up by NASA during its establishment back in 1958, all of them were men, from the military with aviation and test piloting experience, making Alan Bean your stereotypical astronaut from NASA’s golden age of space exploration. Born March 15, 1932 in Wheeler, Texas, Alan LaVern Bean was an American naval officer and a naval aviator, aeronautical engineer, test pilot and NASA astronaut. He was selected to become an astronaut by NASA in 1963 as part of Astronaut Group 3. Based on his career, to folks old enough to remember the iconic 1970s TV series The Six-Million Dollar Man, one could easily mistake that fictional TV astronaut Steve Austin was based on Alan Bean. Before passing away back in May 26, 2018, was the last living crew of Apollo 12. 

Bean became the fourth man to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 12 mission back in November 1969. He made his second and final flight into space on the Skylab 3 mission in 1973 – the second manned mission to the Skylab space station. After retiring from the United States Navy in 1975 and NASA in 1981, Bean pursued his interest in painting, depicting various space-related scenes and documenting his own experiences in space as well as that of his fellow Apollo program astronauts. To folks born way after Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the Moon knew Alan Bean more as an artist/chronicler than someone who actually walked on the Moon over 40 years ago.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Stem Cell Manufacturing In Space: The Future of Biotechnology?

Could that quaint stem cell experiment done by Mark Shuttleworth in the International Space Station represent the future of biotechnology?

By: Ringo Bones

South African I.T. entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth – whose trip to the International Space Station back in April 2002 not only made him the first African to go into space, but also, one of the experiments that he did on the ISS at the time could signal a brand-new industry, namely “space-based biotechnology”. This is more than just a good thing because even now, more than 15 years after Shuttleworth’s so-called working vacation in the ISS, the only serious money-making enterprise of our current space exploration programs is space tourism. Could the manufacture of useful pharmaceutical and biological products in the weightless conditions of low-Earth-orbit be a source of serious money that might make space travel finally pay its way in a an economically viable manner?

Though quite controversial when Mark Shuttleworth did the experiment back in 2002 in the International Space Station nonetheless given that this was the height of the US President George Dubya Bush era “conservatism” where anything remotely related to stem cells is taboo to his voting constituency, it did manage to generate groundbreaking knowledge hitherto unknown before Shuttleworth got the resulting data of his experiment. The result of Shuttleworth’s stem cell experiments in the weightless conditions of the International Space Station back in 2002 had shown that stem cells in the weightless conditions of low-Earth-orbit develop into a form that’s far more useful for medical use. According to Mark Shuttleworth; “Understanding these cells holds the key to healing serious injuries where the cells in one part of the body have been damaged beyond repair.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Can Prof. Stephen Hawking Take Us To The Stars?

As the main consultant of Breakthrough Starshot, can Prof. Hawking and his team send a robotic spacecraft to Alpha Centauri within a generation?

By: Ringo Bones 

The world’s most famous scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking has just teamed up with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to launch the most ambitious extraterrestrial life hunting mission in history. The 100-million US dollar project called Breakthrough Starshot will rely on tiny so-called “nanocraft” flying on sails pushed by beams of light through the universe. The mission was announced during the observance of the 55th Anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. Given the recent advances in consumer electronics that made smartphones almost affordable to everyone, it is probably inevitable that a well-off individual with means can now fund an interstellar mission comparable to that of most popular science fiction serials like Star Trek. After all, a number of students with working-class parents have already sent 90-dollar smartphones on a helium balloon trip 90,000 to 120,000 feet above the earth during the past few years. 

Breakthrough Starshot is a very important engineering proof of concept first step that could eventually send a swarm of nanocraft on their way to Alpha Centauri. “With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation”, says Hawking. The 100-million US dollar research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using a light beam to propel super lightweight nanocraft to 20-percent the speed of light. Using current rocket propulsion technology, it will take 30,000 years for a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri. Using Breakthrough Starshot’s LightSail design, the travel time will be slashed to 20 years as it can move at up to 20-percent the speed of light as the sail is propelled with the help of earth-based laser array and the sun’s photonic pressure acting on the sail. By the way, the Alpha Centauri star-system is 4.37 light-years or 25-trillion miles away from earth. 

LightSail is not the first spacecraft to test this innovative form of propulsion. Japan’s Ikaros probe successfully “sailed” its way to the planet Venus using such solar-sail type propulsion system back in 2010. Ikaros measured 2,000 square feet – 185 square meters – in size. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Astronaut Tim Peake’s Great Space Seed Experiment

Given that astronauts on the International Space Station needs regular resupply of “freeze-dried cuisine,” will their ability to successfully grow their own food allow them to better explore space?

By: Ringo Bones 

One primary setback of our inability to be better space explorers is out inability to grow our own food in our current self-contained space habitats, hopefully this will all change once a British astronaut’s scientific experiments display promising results. When British astronaut Tim Peake’s request for British schoolchildren to help him with one of his scientific experiments got press coverage back in January 29, 2016 could not only rekindle school kids’ interest in science around the world but has the potential to solve one of the most intransigent logistical problems faced by astronauts on the International Space Station. Astronaut Tim Peake wants UK pupils to plant rocket seeds – also known as Eruca sativa, an annual plant that is also edible – using seeds that have been in orbit with him and compare their growth with rocket plant seeds that have stayed on Earth. 

The study will help find ways to grow food in space which will be essential if humans want to successfully travel to distant planets. In his message, the European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut explains that he will be sending more than a million seeds back to Earth in a month’s time. These seeds had been exposed to the weightless conditions as long as he is in the International Space Station. Tim Peake says: “this experiment will aim to see if microgravity can affect the growth mechanism in seeds.” Which might as well, given that our current space-faring vehicles are not yet equipped with artificial gravity mechanisms that can effectively mimic planet Earth’s surface gravity. 

The project is being run by the Royal Horticultural Society and the UK Space Agency. The seeds will be distributed to up to 10,000 schools. Pupils will compare the growth of weightlessness exposed “space seeds” with others that have remained on Earth – which will be designated as the control. This comparison has never been made on this scale, according to Dr. Alistair Griffiths, the scientific director of the Royal Horticultural Society. Even though astronaut Tim Peake and the Royal Horticultural Society’s “space seed experiment” may seem the first ever to most people, the United States’ NASA did a similar experiment back in the 1980s. 

Then popularly referred to as “The Great Tomato Seed Experiment” back in 1984, NASA launched the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) aboard the Space Shuttle. LDEF carried 57 experiments, including one specifically designed to be performed by American students. It was then known as the Space Exposure Experiment Developed for Students – or SEEDS – consists of 12.5 million Rutgers tomato seeds that remained in space for almost six years. The LDEF, together with the 12.5 million tomato seeds were later returned to Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during mission STS-32. Back then over 40,000 educators with 4 million students in 150,000 classrooms across the United States participated in growing the tomato seeds carried aboard the LDEF after being exposed to weightless conditions – and increased cosmic radiation – for almost six years. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Will BAE Systems Make UK The Next Major Space-Faring Nation?

With the 20-percent purchase of Reaction Engines, will BAE Systems soon make the UK the next major space-faring nation? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Well, at least in the near future, BAE Systems could sell to Virgin CEO Richard Branson a space tourism “aerospace-plane” that’s more reliable than the Virgin Galactic Space Ship Two, but as BAE Systems purchases 20-percent of Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines for UK£20.6-million in a deal that will see the defence giant’s expertise applied to research on a privately held company’s engine, which combines jet and rocket technology.     

Nigel Whitehead, managing director at BAE Systems, said: “The potential for this engine is incredible. I feel like we’re in the same position as the people who were the first to consider putting a propeller on an internal combustion engine: we understand that there are amazing possibilities but don’t fully understand what they are, as we just can’t imagine them all. It could be very high speed flight, low-cost launches into orbit or other fantastic achievements.” 

For 20 years, Reaction Engines has been developing its Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) which works like a conventional jet engine while in the Earth’s atmosphere, sucking in oxygen-rich air to burn with its hydrogen fuel. However, once it hits hypersonic speed starting at five times the speed of sound – about 4,000 mph or three-times the speed of a typical hunting rifle bullet – in the thin upper atmosphere, it switches over to become a conventional liquid-fueled rocket engine using the liquid oxygen that it carries as the oxidizer to burn with its hydrogen fuel. The ability to switch between two very different modes of operation means that the SABRE engine system is lighter than existing conventional liquid fuel rocket engines which have to carry much more liquid oxygen in its operation where used up tanks are then jettisoned. 

Reaction Engine’s SABRE’s technological tour-de-force is the development of a proprietary heat exchanger which cools the air going into the engine to a level where it is almost liquid before it is ignited, allowing the SABRE engine to swap between jet and rocket modes. The proprietary heat exchanger can cool hot air from more than 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees Celsius in less than 1/100 of a second. With further research and funding, the UK would be able to operate its own practical aerospace plane that can send astronauts to low Earth orbit at a much reduced operational costs than NASA’s Space Shuttle or those Russian rockets launched at Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The New Horizons Spacecraft: One Giant Leap For Robotic Space Exploration?

Despite their limitations in comparison to human space explorers, is the New Horizon spacecraft demonstrates the best of our current robotic spacecraft ability? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Despite of the post Cold War austere fiscal environment at NASA, the recent successes demonstrated by the New Horizons spacecraft currently taking our clearest snapshots of Pluto so far can be quite inspiring to anyone interested in astronomy and space exploration as a whole. Given the spacecraft’s recent accomplishment despite being built on a “relatively” shoestring budget of 700 million US dollars is no mean feat indeed. 

When NASA’s task-masters at Capitol Hill green lit the New Horizons program back in 2001 and the four year timetable on the construction of the craft for its scheduled launched at the beginning of 2006 are just one of the miracles successfully pulled off by the New Horizons spacecraft. If the funding and launch timetable was delayed to several weeks after the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is no longer a planet, the “princes” at Capitol Hill would probably had scrapped the funding of the New Horizons program. In honor of Pluto’s discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Tombaugh’s ashes was taken onboard as payload on the New Horizons spacecraft so that he can achieve the closest physically possible of actually visiting Pluto first hand. 

Due to its distance and small size, the world’s astronomical community have virtually little interest on the planet Pluto that between the cataloguing of the planet via “old school” astronomical photographic plates by Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930s and astronomer Carl Lampland in the 1950s, the actual location of Pluto’s orbit could be in error by as much as 62,000 miles. It was only after 1990 that the global astronomical community’s orbital data accuracy on Pluto became on par of that of the planets Uranus and Neptune. It is only understandably so due to Pluto’s remoteness at over 3 billion miles away from planet Earth and since Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, astronomers here on Earth had only “witnessed” about 1/3 of its almost 250-year orbit around our Sun.  

The recent New Horizons spacecraft’s successful 8,000 mile “close flyby” would not have happened without the due diligence of one of the New Horizons program’s co investigator Dr. Marc Buie due to a lack of usefully accurate data on Pluto’s orbit and actual distance from the Sun. By 2012, the New Horizon’s team was concerned on the lack of accurate orbital data on the planet Pluto that Dr. Buie actually did his own legwork at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in order to reexamine around 1,000 of astronomical photographic plates of Pluto taken by Clyde Tombaugh and Carl Lampland during 1930 to 1950. The new computational data acquired by Dr. Buie became very indispensible in programming the New Horizon’s spacecraft’s trajectory so that when it encounters Pluto by July 2015, it will be within 8,000 miles – as opposed to 62,000 miles away. 

Due to its destination’s remoteness from the Sun where the ambient strength of sunlight is only 1/1000th found here on Earth, the use of solar panels is out of the question in the New Horizons spacecraft. Instead, it uses a plutonium-239 powered thermoelectric reactor similar to that used in the Voyager spacecraft to power its systems. Due to Pluto’s remoteness, it took nine and a half years for New Horizons to reach its Pluto flyby despite travelling 1 million miles a day at 51,000 miles per hour.