“Spacespresso” Please


The gringa is most definitely a “Trekkie”. No big surprise there, eh? I just love all the gadgets they have on those shows. One of my favorites is the “tri-corder” (which, forever and a day I thought was actually “tri-quarter”). This little doo-dad scanned, analyzed and recorded data. It could detect life forms through a rock wall or diagnose a disease or injury. Well, guess what? NASA may very well be getting some! They’re not called “tri-corder” but, the concept is the same.

This fascinating invention is the brain child of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that’s located in Pasadena, California. It’s small, portable and called a “chemical laptop”. Personally, I think that name has absolutely no imagination and wish they could have come up with something more akin to “tri-corder”, but no one asked me.  If they had I would have called it something like “hand lab” or “Doal” (Detector of alien life) or maybe “Cie” (Coolest invention ever) or, as you will read later and understand, “Spacespresso” (my personal favorite). But, like I said, no one asked me.

This chemical “laptop” is actually not a laptop at all. It’s really a miniature laboratory, about the size of a regular laptop and thicker. The above picture shows the chemical laptop sitting beside a regular laptop, both on top of a rover. The chemical laptop analyzes material samples for signs of life. If it ever makes the grade for an off-world mission it will be an historic moment as being the most sensitive technological device to ever leave planet Earth.

NASA has big dreams of sending it to Mars or Europa. If they get their big chance, instead of using the “laptop” to scan a bit of this or that, it will, gulp, swallow the sample. (The gringa envisions memories of the “Hungry, Hungry, Hippo” game I played as a child.) Once consumed, the laptop can be programmed through various “apps” (we all know what those are!) to test for all sorts of things like amino acids or fatty acids, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it.

Now, at this turn in the story the gringa gets totally sidetracked with the amino acid thing. As I peruse my research material I scratch my little head and think, “Really? I had no idea!” Taking the risk that my dear reader may already know interesting tidbits about amino acids, I will share what fascinated me so.

Apparently, amino acids are either right-handed or left-handed. In other words, there are two types that are mirror images of each other. The left-handed booger is the standard for life as we know it on Earth. As NASA studies samples, they are looking for samples that are predominantly one or the other. A 50/50 mix is not considered to be a biological form.

The challenge for NASA has been developing a way to look for both types in a single sample. And, VOILA!  The chemical laptop! Now, this little lab needs liquid samples which are not easily found on other planets that are usually colossal frozen rocks in orbit. Now, for you folks that love your espresso machines, you will totally get the technology involved to mix a sample with a bit of water then heat the mix until some of the sample’s organic molecules mix with the water.

When “Spacespresso” then receives the liquid sample it injects a fluorescent dye into it. The sample flows over a microchip that detects which is a leftie or which is a rightie. These pass by a laser and are separated according to leftie or rightie status. Once separated, the lefties and righties are mixed with a chemical that interacts specifically with one or the other. Finally, they emerge into a channel and the scientists can then determine how many lefties and how many righties there are.

Field tests began in 2014, which is the first step to reaching the ultimate goal of getting “Spacespresso” to Mars. The next field test is going to be in the Atacama Desert in Chile. NASA, true to its mission of helping all mankind with its work, is considering how this technology can also be of benefit in the world of medicine and not just their own Mars mission dreams. The gringa waits with bated breath.

Source and Photo credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

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NASA Throws Down The Gauntlet


Earlier this month NASA announced a challenge to the public. It seeks creative and innovative minds that can come up with the clever plan and even more clever technology that will enable astronauts to live like self-sufficient pioneers on Mars.

To get in on the action, you need to familiarize yourself with the scope of natural resources on Mars. Once you have a firm grasp on the raw materials and their capabilities, get to the drawing board and design a structure from those materials. First place wins $10,000. How awesome is that? What a wonderful opportunity for some public schools, who are always in need of additional funding, to motivate students to tackle the STEM subjects with gusto!

Truly NASA is committed to talented minds all around the globe as much as they are committed to their mission of exploration. Despite all the glory and prestige that is attached to the NASA brand, the agency recognizes that their efforts will most certainly be enhanced by the skills and brainstorms of any who share their dream and have something to contribute. They open the door to all with such challenges.

The goal to achieve with the technological development this challenge could potentially lead to is to shave off the launch budget about $100,000 for every two pounds of cargo by discovering how to use raw materials on Mars for construction rather than having to pack these materials for delivery here on Earth. This precious space can also be dedicated to other critical supplies for survival that absolutely cannot be found or replicated on the Red Planet.

Solving this problem will not just be for the benefit of a Martian exploration mission. This solution can be adapted and used on other missions as a successful mission on Mars opens the door to deep space exploration.

So, if you or someone you know is a science fiction fanatic or a creative innovator or a science geek, the gringa says, “Give them a poke in the ribs and a heads up! Tell them they need to design a shelter out of Martian soil and rocks.” Encourage them to visit the website setup for the challenge and submit an application: http://go.nasa.gov/1L4MSP6. I mean, really, what have they got to lose? Nothing! And, Mars to gain! What’s not to love about that? How could that NOT motivate a person!

And, if dirt and buildings are not their thing, if you know a fashionista who also has a talent with number-crunching, why not direct them to NASA’s textile challenge? Although the Z-2 design is pretty much a done deal, there are still all sorts of details to hammer out, like:

Direct any up and coming dressmakers, wool weavers and the like to the following link and I know their creative curiosity will get the best of them and they will just have to click!

https://ninesights.ninesigma.com/web/nasa-eva-test

NASA is preparing methods and procedures to properly test the design of the Mars spacesuit and they need some textile experts to help them with this critical job. What a thing to put on a resume when applying at the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house, “First Prize Winner of NASA Textile Challenge”. You know with something like that you’re guaranteed a second interview at the very least!

Source & Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov

Pass The Galaxy Greens, Please


Truly, the gringa enjoys a fresh salad of spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, with some walnuts tossed in, crumbled feta on top, and any assortment of chunky raw vegetables like zucchini, red bell pepper, asparagus, and onion. As a space gringa could I get my salad fix satisfied? Well, that’s exactly what the NASA engineers and scientists based in Huntsville, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center have been working on for decades.

These galactic gardeners have created a space agricultural system for the International Space Station (ISS). The astronauts on ISS have been testing this technology which will ultimately find its way to Mars where it will create the food of the future. The ISS system is called the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). It features a water recovery system and an oxygen generation system, the two basic necessities not only for human life, but also for plant life.

In order to sustain a long duration mission such as a Mars mission, astronauts will need to be able to supplement the food supplies they transport with them. One experiment called “Lada Validating Vegetable Production Unit” (boy is that a mouthful!) involves using a small greenhouse type contraption that has automated water and light controls. Lada’s goals are: to determine if space greens are safely edible; will space microorganisms grow on the space greens and if so, how can this risk be minimized; how can space greens be safely sanitized after harvest; discover methods for optimal production.

The most recent space greens to be harvested are a Japanese lettuce variety called “Mizuna”. The shuttle Discovery made a salad delivery to Earth in April. Along with the salad delivery was a report on findings based on the cultivation of the lettuce by two different methods, the “old” method versus the “new improved” method. The funny thing is that a sensor malfunction that went undetected resulted in a higher yield of lettuce. A mistake produced more. So much for the painstaking methods of a science experiment!

What happened after the sensor went on the blink was that the “root” module (no pot of dirt!) received much more water than it was supposed to. When cultivation “on the ground” determined that it would be better to minimize water and salt accumulations on the roots, this was the plan up on ISS. They’ve discovered the “actual” growing of the plant compared to the “land based” simulation did not result in identical scenarios.

It seems by overwatering the roots nutrients moved faster throughout the plant which resulted in faster fertilization release. Considering the plants are moving water and nutrients in micro-gravity, it makes sense to the gringa that more water would then be better. Water is kind of like a “vehicle” which facilitates the transport of the nutrition.

The gringa asks, “What does all this mean? I know that this will help Martian colonists get their fiber, but how does this help the rest of mankind that gets left behind?” Well, as climate change progresses, agriculture will become more of a challenge. We simply cannot continue producing crops according to the same old tried and true methods. Climate controlled greenhouses will need to be advanced to the point of sustaining a world population on the produce and vegetables it produces. The data from these experiments is critical to develop the type of technology that will save the Earth’s population from hunger.

These agricultural experiments have been taking place cooperatively between the United States and Russia for twenty years. Together, the scientists of two nations who have had an often hostile, cold, cantankerous relationship have ignored politics to quietly work together to solve the world’s problems. The gringa really likes that, even more than the space lettuce.

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

Maaahhhvelous MAVEN!


Yesterday was an important anniversary at NASA. Celebrations were in order to mark a successful year of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet fulfilling its mission of understanding the upper and lower atmospheres of Mars. Scientists want to know how Martian atmospheric gases that escape into space change the climate of the planet. The ultimate question is whether or not the pattern of atmospheric evolution can trace back to an ancient history where life could once have been supported there.

MAVEN inserted itself into a Mars orbit in September, 2014 and had a dangerous encounter with Comet Siding Spring within its first month in action. Over the past twelve months, MAVEN has carried out and recorded atmospheric observations for ten of those months.

It has detected a pattern of particles at both poles that create a “Mohawk” effect as they escape the atmosphere in plumes. Mars also has a metallic particle layer high in the atmosphere which lights up when affected by solar storms. These particles are leftovers from space rubbish left behind by comets and meteorites. The gringa thinks Mars would be the perfect place for some rock-n-roll concerts.

The violent atmosphere of Mars is punctuated by solar and space radiation, magnetically and electrically charged solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections that strip the upper atmosphere of Mars of electrically and magnetically charged ions. The data collected on MAVEN can be analyzed to hopefully answer the question if this is the reason for atmospheric loss on the Red Planet and if so, scientists will then attempt to establish a time frame for the continued erosion of the Martian atmosphere.

NASA is very proud of the teamwork that has produced such a successful Martian mission as the MAVEN project. Engineers designed and built a sturdy spaceship that remains in excellent working order despite the extreme conditions it functions within. Although mission completion date is only months away, it is expected that the mission will be extended. The rich amount of data for a hungry science community is too valuable to give up as long as MAVEN is still operational. NASA will be giving the green light for this little workhorse to stay on the job at least one more year.

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

Space Cadets, All Hail The Dragon!


The gringa wants to introduce you to the Dragon. This automated spacecraft, designed by SpacEx, is the first commercial spacecraft EVER to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and return cargo to Earth. Governments can move over because private industry has got this job covered. Refinements are underway so that very soon the Dragon will be able to achieve the ultimate goal it was designed for, to carry a human crew.

The configurations of the Dragon are versatile. It can be used, as it already successfully has shown, to be a perfect cargo vessel. It will very soon have the capability to house a human crew. However, it’s not your average space taxi. It can also be used as a DragonLab to conduct technology demonstrations and scientific experiments in outer space. The different configurations are so similar, that converting from one to another is relatively quick and seamless.

The Dragon’s pressurized section houses the cargo and crew. The outside base of this section carries the thrusters, guidance and navigation control bay as well as the ever critical heat shield. The Dragon even has a trunk. No, it’s not where the astronauts store a spare thruster and crowbar. This is the part of the spaceship that is the foundational support during ascent, houses the craft’s solar arrays, and can also carry cargo that does not need to be pressurized. Just before the Dragon enters the atmosphere of Earth, this section is jettisoned. The gringa thinks, “How many of us ladies wishes it was so easy to get rid of unwanted junk in our trunk?”

Presently, the primary mission of the Dragon is to routinely resupply the International Space Station. This is not your average delivery-man job. I don’t believe UPS or FedEx train their delivery personnel for the effects of anti-gravity. To accommodate these effects, the cargo hold is filled with honeycomb shaped racks constructed of a carbon-aluminum material.

After the first successful test flight in 2012, and many more resupply missions after that, the Dragon has been undergoing upgrades. Hopefully, very soon, perhaps within the coming months, NASA crews will perform the first manned test flight in a vessel that SpacEx says will be the world’s safest crew transport spacecraft. It will seat seven. The gringa doesn’t take up much room. For being so tiny I’m also awfully strong. I would make a perfect space delivery person. I’d be so happy to be a part of something this fantastic, I wouldn’t even expect the astronauts to tip me.

 

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.spacex.com/dragon