The Tractor That Saved The World


Almost every American knows what John Deere or Massey-Ferguson means, a big green or red tractor that plows up the field. These brand names conjure up images of overalls and boots and twigs of hay being chewed on while whittling on old sticks on a rickety front porch. Rarely would one hear the word tractor and envision a hero who saves the entire civilization of Earth. An event that occurred in 2005 could very well change such stereotypes associated with the word “tractor”.

I was about three-years-old when I got my first ride on a tractor. I was fifteen-years-old when I got to plow my first field all by myself on a big Massey-Ferguson tractor we called the “Wildebeest”. At the time I was actually wearing a dress. I wasn’t supposed to be plowing the field. I was visiting with my grandparents for the summer and had returned home from church and not changed out of my church clothes because I expected we would return for the evening service.

My nanny received a phone call and sent me out to the field with a message folded up on a scrap of paper for Papaw. He read it, hopped off the tractor, left it running, and told me to get up there and finish the job because he had something to do. I looked at him like he had just told me to amputate my leg but I didn’t dare question him. A good girl did as she was told. I’m sure he read every word I was thinking by the expression on my face. He said, “Just follow the lines like your tracing a picture.” That was it. That was all the advice he had. He walked back to the house and never looked back.

I climbed up on the Wildebeest and prayed to God the first thing I touched would simply shut the bastard of a machine down. It didn’t. I tentatively pulled a lever like I had seen Papaw do, put my little foot clad in black patent leather Mary Jane’s on what I assumed was a gas pedal, and rolled away. My rows were a bit wavy when I finished an hour later but I didn’t kill myself or run over the neighbor’s fence.

When I got back to the house, I discovered the phone call had nothing to do with my Papaw at all. It was a friend of Nanny’s from church telling her she left her Sunday School study guide behind. Nanny used it as a ruse to send a note to Papaw that said “Let her drive the tractor.” And that was that, the gringa’s tractor adventures while Nanny and Papaw covertly watched from the window pleased with themselves and thrilled that their little granddaughter was so crazily, courageously entertaining. You know, back in the day when folks didn’t worry about getting Child Protective Services called out if they encouraged their kids to something exhilarating, liberating and life threatening all in the name of a “life skills teaching moment”.

This world saving tractor, however, has nothing to do with planting corn and beets. It doesn’t even have those enormous tires. It’s unlike any tractor humans have ever seen before. It looks more like a fancy Tinker Toy than anything else. Rather than churn up clods of dirt, it will push or pull one gigantic rock through outer space. This technology was first tested by NASA in 2005 as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that will ultimately get a human crew to Mars.

Since all mass exerts, as well as is affected by, gravity, it doesn’t take much to influence the orbit of an asteroid that is violating Earth’s personal space. A gravitational tractor doesn’t even have to touch the asteroid to redirect it. It simply has to get close enough to perform a maneuver that would change the orbital path of the asteroid. It’s like having an invisible lasso. That’s why the gringa thinks they should name this tractor in honor of Wonder Woman. Her Lasso of Truth may not have been invisible but her airplane was, so, the gringa thinks there’s enough connection there to rightfully name the tractor Wonder Woman. Also, since the theory works on mutual attraction (gravity), there should be some allusion to the tractor’s attractive sexiness and Wonder Woman was definitely all that.

NASA’s gravity tractor is being developed at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Scientists envision a twenty ton spacecraft propelled by nuclear powered electricity. As gravity causes the asteroid to be attracted to the tractor, thrusters would then propel the tractor to a suitable orbit area for the asteroid. Despite the gringa’s best efforts to dig around for news of a release mechanism, I simply couldn’t find anything on what would happen once a new orbit for the asteroid was established. So, Wonder Woman may be stuck in a lifetime commitment unless they come up with a way to untangle the ties that bind this cosmic relationship.

The gringa asks, how necessary is this project? How much danger are Earthlings in from a huge rock  slamming into our home world and ending life as we know it? Well, out of the 12,000 Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that NASA has on record so far, almost all of them are larger than half a mile in diameter. By tracking their projected orbits, we humans should be safe for at least one hundred years. There are some smaller space rocks that could impact Earth, but are not necessarily big enough to cataclysmically impact humanity. The work we do today is really for the benefit of our great-great-grandchildren.

If anything related to the Universe fascinates you, it may be quite a lark to participate in NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. There are many activities and even prize competitions. The space agency has even developed a software application that can assist amateur astronomers discover and identify new asteroids. To become a part of this grand space adventure visit NASA at http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

Source and Photo Credit:  www.nasa.gov

And The Winning Asteroid Is…


NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) scheduled in the mid -2020s has yet to determine which asteroid they plan to go out and corral into the orbit of our moon. The work is still ongoing to determine the winning asteroid candidate. So far, NASA has narrowed the selection down to the following three candidates: Itokawa, Bennu and 2008 EV5. It is possible, however, other asteroids could be added to this short list and these current favorites could be eliminated. The gringa feels like it’s a bad scene from a science fiction Bachelor episode.

Since NASA announced its asteroid initiative to the public three years ago, science experts as well as science enthusiasts from all over the world have collaborated in identifying these Big Bang rock leftovers throughout the cosmos.  These efforts have been so successful, detection of near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) has increased by sixty-five percent.

On December 29, 2010,  the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAEA) spacecraft “Hayabusa” returned to Earth with samples from an asteroid they named “Itokawa”. The Japanese led international crew of scientists brought back a chunk of an alien world.  Hayabusa traveled one billion kilometers  for over two years to execute what must be the world’s longest pick-up and delivery service ever. The gringa would not want to pick up the tab for that tip! Five bucks for the pizza guy is my absolute limit! This successful joint mission of multiple nations led by the Japanese was successful in bringing scientists dust particles from another world, the third such achievement the world has ever seen.

Images of Itokawa were taken when the asteroid crossed near Earth in 2005. It’s surface is unique to any others that have been observed because it seems to have no craters. The scientists are really scratching their heads over this little mystery. One hypothesis thinks it’s possible that craters simply cannot form on Itokawa because rather than being a solid rock asteroid, it actually is a junk pile of multiple space rocks and ice chunks held together by gravity. If it gets struck by a meteor, it would just jiggle around. The gringa’s not so sure she holds with this theory, but, hey, I’m not scientist. Who am I to criticize. The asteroid holds other novelties as well. One part of its interior is denser than the other. For the gringa, that sounds like people. The experts will continue their studies and, maybe one day, the world will know the answer to why Itokawa has a hard spot and no pock marks. It almost sounds like a disease.

Another asteroid favorite is Bennu. This little fella seems to have led a hard life. Researchers believe old Bennu (billions of years old) was dismembered by the gravity of multiple planets. Now THAT’S what the gringa calls living in a rough neighborhood. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland has produced an animated video to introduce Bennu. It can be viewed here, on NASA’s website, or on YouTube.

In late 2016 a mission to Bennu is planned to launch. It should take about seven years for samples to be retrieved and then returned to Earth. Scientists suspect that Bennu is made up of chondrules. These are grains of mineral (in other words, space sand) that are held together by gravity and stationary electrical charges to form a solid rock. Scientist want to test their theory by getting their hands on some samples.

Bennu is important because it is like a time capsule which has preserved itself since the Big Bang that gave birth to it. It has not experienced geologic and chemical changes like our Earth. Bennu could possibly be a pristine example of the most primitive material in the entire solar system. This could help the scientific community understand how life began if organic material is present on Bennu that could have the building blocks of terrestrial life, such as carbon and hydrogen.

Bennu is not as dense as a regular Earth rock so it could possibly be hollow. It could be just another pile of rubble like Itokawa. It is also very dark, like asphalt. Because of this, it absorbs lots of sunlight which then creates a radiating effect which causes a reaction a bit like propulsion which affects its orbit. This is known as the Yarkovsky effect. So, basically, Bennu just kind of wanders the galaxy willy-nilly and why it has sometimes had close encounters with Saturn, Venus and Earth. The theory of being a rubble pile then explains why it seems to change shape because, when having a close call with a large planet, the gravitational effect would pull it apart and reshape it.

Now, NASA may call a Bennu encounter a “close call”, but the gringa’s not too worried. There is only a 1 in 2,500 chance that it could impact the Earth in our lifetime. We’ve got plenty of time to develop a planetary defense system that can give Bennu a little poke in the eye if he gets too close and send him on his way again.

The third contender for the asteroid lasso rodeo is asteroid 2008 EV5. Not a very romantic name. The gringa thinks the experts could have come up with something a bit more catchy. March 4, 2008 (big surprise there), the Mount Lemmon Survey in Tucson, Arizona discovered 2008 EV5. This asteroid has an interesting prominent ridge that parallels the rock’s equator, broken only be a depression 150 meters in diameter which is probably an impact crater. The surface seems to be very rocky so, once again, probably a junk heap asteroid made up of carbonaceous chondrite. It could be Bennu’s evil twin.

The gringa has discovered that at this time, 2008 EV5 is the favorite because it seems to be filled with “cobbles” or stones that meet the dimensions best suited for the ARM robotic retrieval system. I am so disappointed that what may be the most important asteroid of my lifetime will not have a clever or catchy name like Itokawa or Bennu. The world will know the final decision sometime in 2019. The gringa is crossing her fingers for an asteroid with a really cool name, like Gringa2015.  A girl can dream, right?!

Sources and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov

The Future Of American Rockets Is Here


NASA is preparing the most powerful rocket in world history to soon make its debut. Space Launch System (SLS) is a flexible design whose design evolved as testing continued. It’s capability is to launch a space vehicle laden with crew and cargo into the atmosphere as they commence a deep space mission. One such mission in the near future is for SLS to transport the Orion spacecraft then transfer its cargo and experiments into deep space. SLS is a technology that is safe, sustainable and provides astronauts the means to travel along a route of multiple destinations toward the grand prize, Mars.

The first SLS launch vehicle had a capacity of lifting over 70 tons beyond low-Earth orbit. It was the most powerful rocket that had ever been built. However, through its design evolution, it can now carry a load of over 143 tons making missions possible far out into our solar system.

Part of the cargo to be launched into space by SLS are the components and technology required for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This will enable NASA to first test the capabilities of all the technologies involved in a manned Mars mission in a safe, unmanned, robotic mission.  NASA’s Glenn Research Center is headquarters for the development of one of these technologies, the Solar  Electric Propulsion (SEP) system. The plan is to use solar arrays to convert sunlight into electrical power that will charge atoms as a means of propelling the spacecraft. This propulsion system can potentially move massive loads of cargo slowly, yet efficiently. This type of propulsion system can save the taxpayers a lot of money, but we have to be a little more patient and expect missions to take a bit longer. The gringa’s okay with that because I for darn sure get a little sick and tired of everyone seeming to be in an all-fired hurry all the time. Makes me tired sometimes just watching folks knock themselves out so. The gringa just wants to say, “Hey, relax. Get there in one piece. Sit, have a drink. Chat. Don’t rush through life. Take time to enjoy life and appreciate the little things that get overlooked when you run like a bat outta hell whose tail is on fire. Most of the crap in life that’s screaming for attention can wait. I promise it will still be there an hour later or a day later. That’s what I tell my big, ol’ pile of dirty laundry every day as I casually stroll by. Works like a charm.” But, I digress, back to rockets.

One component of the SEP system is the Hall thruster. It uses ten times less propellant than traditional chemical rockets. When it was tested in a vacuum chamber it proved to be more efficient and have longer fuel life.  Hall thrusters work by trapping electrons within a magnetic field. It then uses those electrons to ionize the propellant. This generates an electric field that accelerates the charged ions, creating a plasma exhaust plume that propels the spacecraft forward.  Sounds like rocket science, to the gringa. I don’t understand a bit of that but I will trust that the scientists at NASA know exactly what they are doing.

This is all part of NASA’s progress toward its initiative to launch a Green Propellant Infusion Mission in 2016. This fuel will be tested in a small satellite. It is a non-toxic, high-performance “green” fuel that will hopefully replace the toxic hydrazine that is currently used. This will enable NASA to utilize lightweight, composite tanks on rockets which will significantly lower the weight of the load, improving efficiency and lowering costs.

If the unmanned ARM mission is successful, SEP could very well be the answer to deep space travel. For humans to achieve deep space missions, SEP may deliver on the very things necessary to accomplish the job. SEP can move huge cargo loads which solves the problem of supply shortages. SEP does not require massive quantities of fuel to be part of the cargo due to its solar energy facet. That solves the problem of being able to carry enough fuel to make a round trip to deep space. The robotic nature of ARM resolves the conundrum of creating multiple ports staged along the route to Mars. An SEP-powered unmanned spacecraft could deliver the cargo and vehicles necessary for longer manned missions into deep space where they would wait until crews arrived. Mars expeditionary crews would station hop on their way to Mars, refueling and resupplying as they went. The gringa falls asleep at night fantasizing of leapfrogging her way to the Red Planet when she’s old and arthritic and cranky and craves the natural pain relief of the weightlessness of deep space. Hey, a girl can dream, cain’t she?

Source & Photo credit: www.nasa.gov

NASA Invites Public Collaboration


In last Monday’s blog article “Asteroid Ahead! Redirect! Redirect!” I mentioned the “Asteroid Grand Challenge”, NASA’s initiative to think outside the box and cast a wide citizen-focused net to capture concepts that will help NASA achieve its Mars objectives quicker. NASA recognizes that innovative ideas and cutting edge technologies can be found all over the world, not just among their own staff. Through NASA’s “Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology Network” (ECAST), participants can provide assessments and ideas that not only help NASA move forward in their Mars projects, but also helps develop programs that facilitate public understanding that is engaging, interactive, and widely available to all who are interested.

By inviting the public to engage in space exploration in whatever level they are capable, every individual can be vested, to a degree, in the course that NASA plots. Open dialogue that allows all Americans to share their ideas has been a source of great benefit for NASA. Jason Kessler, of the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA’s D.C. headquarters, doesn’t just get information requests from citizens. There are forums for all related industries where entrepreneurs of small business as well as large corporations have an opportunity to engage in dialogue with NASA and explore different models, plans and technologies for missions that are in preparation.  ECAST makes it possible for people of the general population who are not represented by related industry to have a voice in NASA’s technology policies.

Civilian participation with ECAST research focuses on planetary defense, designs for habitations of Mars, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA wants to know what the public thinks about these ideas. NASA is open to consider your own ideas. NASA wants citizens to share their values in regard to these topics. Two public forum meetings held in 2014 in Phoenix and Boston resulted in NASA listening to the majority of civilians present expressing their interest and support in asteroid research, planetary defense and further space exploration. NASA valued the diversity of ideas, insight and information provided by citizens. Without this program, NASA would not have access to the opinions of Americans, realize their intense curiosity and support of their work, and enjoy the prospect of third party innovative ideas to consider.

NASA openly seeks ideas from American companies for spacecraft designs that can be used in the upcoming ARM mission.  Companies can also offer design ideas for the robotic satellite and a refueling system within the satellite that will assist in mission services within low-Earth orbit. NASA’s goal is to have a robotic spacecraft ready for launch in the early 2020s that can capture a large boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and set it up in a stable orbit around the Earth’s moon to be used in research and training for the upcoming Mars exploration missions.

In an era where there is so much cynicism and criticism of big government, the gringa finds this refreshing because, after all, I am an astronaut hopeful. My family thinks I am crazy, but, if ever a regular Joe could have an opportunity to go to Mars, you can count me in. What a great opportunity for brilliant business owners and courageous citizens to have a chance to partner with an organization such as NASA on the most ambitious and incredible project of my generation.

For more information about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

For more information about NASA’s robotic satellite servicing capabilities office, visit:

http://go.usa.gov/3kpV5

 

Sources: www.nasa.gov

Photo credit::  www.researchandinnovation.ie

Asteroid Ahead! Redirect! Redirect!


I am a sci-fi fan. I love to read science fiction books, watch science fiction movies and even indulge in trolling some of the latest conspiracy theory sites on the future Armageddon triggered by an apocalyptical asteroid-Earth collision event. One thing I have learned throughout my many years of science fiction madness is that there is usually an itsy-bitsy kernel of truth within the fantastical story. The gringa has found such a tidbit of truth within the asteroid-Earth collision story and it comes straight from NASA.

A one of a kind robot mission is being planned at NASA regarding an asteroid near Earth. The robot’s job within the next decade is to gather a mega-ton boulder from an asteroid and redirect it into an orbit around the Moon. This asteroid sample would be explored about five years later and samples returned to Earth from its surface.  This mission, begun in 2013, is called “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (ARM) and is all part of the plan for getting humans to Mars in the 2030’s. This little information nugget is what is fueling the preppers and conspiracists who think all of mankind is doomed sometime this September by an asteroid-Earth catastrophe. As these folks hunker down in their bunkers, the gringa asks the dear reader to simply read on and amuse yourself.

Out of the thousand-plus asteroids astronauts have to select from, they have four that are favorites. A bit more research on their orbit, velocity, spin and size will be conducted for a few more years before a final decision is made. To speed things along, NASA also has created an initiative called the “Asteroid Grand Challenge”. Its purpose is to identify asteroids that pose a potential hazard not just through NASA’s efforts but through collaboration with other cosmic partners. For the astronaut hopeful, physicist, hobbyist astronomer and such in my reading audience, who knows, perhaps you could lend a hand and be a part of something fantastic. Since the plan to launch ARM is scheduled for some time in the 2020 decade, you’ve got plenty of time to get to work.

Now, considering my insatiable curiosity, the gringa has to ask, “Why should we spend so much taxpayer money and risk the lives of astronauts to collect some kazillion years old space rocks?” The answer? Asteroids are considered to be the remnants of the Big Bang. They are the left overs. By having access to an asteroid as near as our Moon, scientists can study more samples than ever before. This helps to satisfy their insatiable curiosity as to how our solar system was formed and life on Earth began. In other words, the discoveries could lead to mankind saving the planet and figuring out how to colonize another planet. There are also possibilities of finding frozen water sources which could hold all sorts of interesting things within to study under a microscope, maybe even a frozen bubble of breathable air. That would indicate the possibility of a sister planet that a human could survive on without a protective suit or artificial environment. And, of course, there are always “those” people who hope to find another energy and fuel source. You know, the ones who don’t look at outer space with curiosity and wonder but with dollar signs in their eyes.

The mission will develop a planetary defense technique that could be used to deflect an asteroid that posed a dangerous threat to Earth. Now, if you’re already questioning whether it’s even a good idea to nudge an asteroid over to the Moon and ask the sort of questions the gringa asks, like, “Um, guys, could it just be THAT could become the asteroid that ends up threatening all civilization?” Rest assured, NASA has thought of that as well. That is the reason for the studies on size, mass, velocity and speed. They want to capture an asteroid large enough to provide great research opportunity but small enough to burn up in the atmosphere if it did go rogue and plummet towards Earth.

The gringa also considers, “This all sounds fascinating but, exactly how does this get us closer to Mars?” Well, ever since mankind has begun to climb into rockets and physically explore the cosmos, astronauts have been dependent upon supplies and support from Earth. This has limited the amount of time astronauts can remain in space and how far they can travel. Such missions are labeled “Earth Reliant”. The “Proving Ground” of the deep space environment surrounding the moon is closer to what space travelers will experience on a trip to Mars. For example, solar and cosmic radiation is stronger outside low-Earth orbit and closer to the Moon.

Presently, a typical astronaut mission on the International Space Station (ISS) can last up to six months (about 180 days).  A manned mission to Mars could take 500 days or more. Most of that time is simply in transit back and forth (about six months each way). To become completely Earth independent journeys,  new technologies and methods will be tested on the asteroid.

One such technology to test is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). This would do away with chemical dependent propulsion allowing larger on-board payloads in place of the weight that would have otherwise been dedicated to fuel. A larger payload means more on board supplies. More on board supplies means a longer mission capability. Solar propulsion also means energy independence. Energy independence means limitless distance capability of travel within our solar system. By having the asteroid, NASA can test the SEP system as a robotic system that can simulate sending cargo to Mars well before habitants arrive.

Once a robotic spacecraft has successfully landed on Mars, the next phase would then be to launch a crew to Mars. This crew will need to have the skills and technology to maneuver and dock with the Martian robotic spacecraft. This can be practiced on the asteroid delivered to Moon orbit.

Now, a trip to Mars is not a hot-shot, non-stop flight. The plan is actually to have a staged journey. Between Earth and Mars would be multiple ports of call similar in nature to the current ISS. The Orion is NASA’s current exploration craft that will be used in future solar system exploration.  All astronauts slated for Martian missions would then need to know how to dock the Orion with these stations.

What about the protective suits astronauts wore on the Moon landing and currently wear when conducting maintenance and repairs in space at  the ISS? Are these suits sufficient for a Mars mission or do astronauts require new technology there as well? Spacesuits, also known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), will need upgrades to the primary life support system (PLSS) due to the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars. Engineers are also working on upgrades that will provide better oxygen regulation and humidity control. The gringa thinks, “Dear God, please have decent humidity control. We don’t want to see leather skinned astronaut faces with crazy, frizzy hair.” The EMUs also have cooling systems and atmospheric pressure regulators that will be upgraded to accommodate holding more fluids for longer periods of time. Durability will also be a factor. Astronauts traveling to Mars will need these babies to last a long time and be easy to maintain and repair. The new designs will be tested on the asteroid missions before actually going to Mars. It would really suck to be 10 days out on a 500 day mission only to find out your spacesuit was not going to be able to hold 17 months worth of pee. At least on the asteroid you can turn around and go home and change your pants.

Within the next five years, the world can expect to see a new object floating around the moon and regular travel back and forth to study, research and rehearse for even greater events in the future. Within the gringa’s lifetime, I may just witness humans arriving on Mars. Who knows, by the time I’m old and ornery enough that my kids and grandkids have stolen my driver’s license, hidden my car keys and put my car up on blocks, I may just buy a damn ticket.

Sources:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/what-is-nasa-s-asteroid-redirect-mission

http://www.nasa.gov/content/how-will-nasas-asteroid-redirect-mission-help-humans-reach-mars

Photo credit: spectrum.mit.edu