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.