Say Hello to R2 aka Hardhat Harry


Robonaut. It sounds like the title of a cheap sci-fi flick or perhaps the name of a second-rate children’s superhero action toy. In reality, Robonaut, Robonaut 2 (R2), to be exact, is a vital part of the crew aboard the International Space Station. He is a humanoid robot the gringa likes to call “Hardhat Harry” because of the types of jobs he performs as well as the future plans NASA is cooking up for him and future Hardhat Harry clones.

Presently Hardhat Harry is going through his paces as NASA engineers study how well he performs at this job. NASA hopes that one day Hardhat Harry will be able to join astronauts in their dangerous and risky spacewalks when they perform the necessary maintenance and repairs required on the outside of the space station.

But Hardhat Harry is more than just a handyman, he is also a scientist. In the Destiny laboratory he takes velocity air measurements. However, he is not above giving handrails a good scrubbing. And, just like the gringa, Hardhat Harry likes to flip switches and push buttons.

Guess how he performs his duties? Does the dear reader envision a programmer sitting in front of a computer screen inputting commands? Perhaps an image flashes through your mind of something like a video game with an engineer using a joystick to maneuver Hardhat Harry through his tasks. Nope, it’s even cooler than that. Crew members on board the ISS get to play a very serious scientific game of virtual reality, donning virtual reality headgear and controlling Hardhat Harry as if he were themselves!

Although Hardhat Harry has plenty of charm, don’t fall in love yet. Don’t get any ideas of thinking you will be able to visit one of the many space centers around the world when he returns from his mission and get his autograph. NASA has no plans for Hardhat Harry to ever return home.

Hardhat Harry will continue to be improved and upgraded as researchers learn how to adapt the technology to perform in the vacuum of space and eventually embark on deep space missions. Fleets of R2 Hardhat Harry clones will become the world’s future hi-tech repairmen, traveling far and wide to repair and upgrade communications and weather satellites. There is also great hope that a Hardhat Harry crew will be developed and shipped off to Mars for a surface mission or mine geological resources from the Moon.

Hardhat Harry and his kin will not replace astronauts, so, dear readers, if you are an astronaut hopeful like the gringa there is no need to despair. R2s are simply going to go first and make the way safer for exploration. And, by performing the boring repair jobs, astronauts can devote more time to discovery.

The next phase of progress is to deliver Hardhat Harry some legs. It may seem kind of silly to have Hardhat Harry up there, trying to get the job done without any legs, but remember, he is working in microgravity. He doesn’t necessarily need legs to move about the ISS. And, the legs they will be sending him don’t even have feet. They have grasping contraptions at the end of his “legs” that will secure him to railings while he works.

And, by having removable legs, Hardhat Harry has the option to rove about planetary surfaces centaur style. NASA is developing a four-wheel vehicle that Hardhat Harry’s torso can attach to as he zips about the Moon or Mars or wherever his adventures take him or NASA needs him.

Fans of R2 (aka Hardhat Harry) can keep up with all his exploits in space via Twitter @AstroRobonaut. So, for all the gringa’s dear readers who love robots and have great big dreams and ambitions with robotic technologies, keep your dreams alive and see if NASA can help you make them come true!

Source & Image Credit:  www.nasa.gov

 

Cosmic Spas & Outer Space Mineral Mines


Are NASA and other international space agencies interested in creating colonies on the Moon and various other exotic, cosmic locales? Most certainly. However, not for the nefarious purposes of whisking away the highly educated and financial elite in order to preserve the human race from extinction. What they really want to do is exploit the natural resources of these places.

Humans are a hungry species and their appetites include all sorts of stuff from fruits and vegetables to minerals and ores. Many minerals and ores are not only rare, with few deposits in sundry places around the world, but are also finite in their supply. Once diminished, humans will have to find another source. That’s where asteroids and the Moon come into play.

Asteroids are like one of those grab bags you get as a party favor. You never know what’s inside. Although primarily chunks of ice, tar and dust, they also contain scare minerals and metals. For astronaut mining crews, outer space is full of opportunity, kind of like a mechanic entering an auto junkyard the size of Earth. Best estimates to date believe there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids, some nearly five billion years old, of assorted sizes and shapes from the size of a coffee table to hundreds of miles in diameter (Earth, in comparison, is about 8,000 miles in diameter). With such abundance, if humans can overcome the technological and economical obstacles, we may have a seemingly limitless supply of raw materials available.

The gringa wonders what will happen when that occurs? Will space become filled with flag waving asteroids? Considering even a small asteroid could be valued at many millions of dollars in potential minerals, will countries be zipping about space, hither and yon, planting flags on as many asteroids as possible in a territory game of, “Mine! I found it first!”? The gringa is hoping it will be much more civilized than that.

For mining purposes, asteroid’s are classified according to three groups based on light reflection (spectral) analysis. Since mankind cannot yet land on an asteroid and physically take a geological sample or do so with a robotic satellite, scientists evaluate how light reflects off the surface of an asteroid to determine its primary mineral component.

C-type asteroids are dark and carbon based. They are comprised of clay based minerals that have lots of water trapped within the clay. The gringa thinks these could, perhaps become cosmic spas if we could find a way to generate some kind of thermal reaction within the asteroid. Think of it, “Come visit asteroid XP-247 for its relaxing steam baths and mineralized clay body and facial wraps. Just don’t forget your oxygen mask.”

But what about the carbon and other stuff in the clay? Is that any good for anything? Yep. It makes a garden grow lush, thick and plentiful. C-type asteroids rich in carbon, phosphorous and other elements in the fertilizer spectrum could be very valuable as future garden spots. The gringa can now see the cosmic version of the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” where visitors can also get a soak in the hot springs and a beautifying and detoxifying mineral rich clay body wrap.

I mean, really, we have plenty of clay and carbon and water here on Earth but surely there will be an eager entrepreneur who will see the same potential. Or do we really have plenty of clay, minerals and water on Earth?

The water reserves could very well come in handy. The gringa can see it now – a gravity beam lassos a water rich C-type asteroid and hauls it near Earth’s atmosphere. It then uses transporter technology that has finally been perfected to zap it through the atmosphere, avoiding a friction filled entry that would evaporate up all that precious water. Then, as it approaches fatefully close to a desert region, just before impact a precision laser beam goes, “ZIP, ZAP, ZOOM!” and a lovely shower of water rains down upon the desert with all the pulverized clay and carbon providing rich fertilizer. The desert is soon a fertile oasis. Hey, it could happen. Stranger things already have.

But NASA thinks the real value of water rich asteroids is in using the resource in outer space. By finding a way to mine the water in flight, crews could save billions of dollars by not having to pack this life-support necessity. Interestingly enough, the very thing that humans need to survive, consisting of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen, are the very elements of rocket fuel. (Wow, humans are 60% rocket fuel, or, water, depending on your perspective!). So, astronauts dock their spaceship at a galactic version of Exxon to fill up the tank and top off the water reserves. And while the service station is checking the engine’s oil level and cabin’s air pressure, the crew is freshening up at the nearby spa. Interesting.

So, C-type asteroids can either be Desert-to-Eden conversion sources, hot spring spas, water wells, or rocket fuel depots. Or all three at the same time.Take your pick.

S-type asteroids shine a little brighter than dark, carbon based C-types. That’s because they are rich in reflective metals like cobalt, iron and nickel. If a mining crew is really lucky they could find one with deposits of rhodium, platinum or gold. Scientists estimate that an asteroid about the size of an average bedroom could be packed with well over one million pounds of metals, a tiny fraction being the exceedingly valuable rare ones. Even if mining crews could extract just one hundred pounds of platinum, at about $1000 an ounce, a $100,000 load of platinum would just be the gravy on top of the wealth accumulated from the remaining predominant minerals.

But it may be the M-class asteroids that wars end up being fought over. The wars for oil that we have raging now could very well become wars for M-class asteroids in the future. These asteroids are expected to contain at least ten times the mineral content of S-types.

To make space mining a reality, the mission has to be profitable. With current missions costing in the hundreds of millions, some even billions, an asteroid would have to be massively rich in raw materials. The other option is to develop technologies that are more economical.

Before any of that even matters, current asteroid knowledge needs to be vastly broadened and fine-tuned. We need cosmic cartographers to accurately map the hundreds of thousands of asteroids in outer space. The world needs space geologists that have the technology and knowledge to analyze what minerals each asteroid actually contains. Young students now, who have an interest in a cosmic career, could really have a geology or cartography degree pay off by landing them their dream job.

NASA’s first effort to test their scientific mettle for determining present mineral resources within an asteroid lie with their OSIRIS-REx mission. The goal of “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security and Regolith Explorer” is to return with a geological sample from asteroid Bennu. It is set to launch in September and arrive at the asteroid almost two years later. If all goes according to plan, Earthlings can expect an authentic piece of Bennu to arrive on planet Earth around 2020. (Of course, the gringa is reminded of her favorite piece of motherly advice given regularly to her children in efforts to cultivate a more relaxed approach to life, “The plan is that nothing goes according to plan.”)

In addition to geological studies of Bennu’s raw materials, asteroid re-direction technologies will also be studied. The spacecraft is scheduled to perform an interesting experiment. It is going to give Bennu a gentle, solar nudge. Scientists want to know if sunlight can be used to affect the path of travel of asteroids. I guess the reasoning is that asteroids are too valuable to simply blast into oblivion if Earth happens to be in the way. They would rather nudge them aside then attempt to exploit the wealth they contain.

The most important goals of the mission, however, are to further the development of space mining technologies. They plan to scrape together a two ounce and 4.4 pound geological sample. The spacecraft will then use its state-of-the-art instruments to map the surface of Bennu and analyze its composition. These are the on-board technologies and their purposes:

  • OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) – analyzes visible and near-infrared light to detect minerals, compounds and chemicals within the asteroid.
  • OTES (OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer) – analyzes infrared light to detect surface minerals of Bennu, determine surface temperature and map the location of water-rich clay mineral deposits.
  • REx (Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer) – analyzes X-ray aura of Bennu’s surface in sunlight to calculate amounts and locations of elements like: iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur.

To find out if sunlight can be used as an asteroid diversion technique OVIRS and OTES will combine their abilities to study what is known as the “Yarkovsky effect”. When an asteroid absorbs sunlight much of the heat radiates outward and provides a propelling effect. Observations will be made to see if a “man-made” solar heat saturation could result in changing an asteroid’s trajectory.

Most of what will be recorded by the different spectrometers will only reflect what is on Bennu’s surface and within a shallow depth (about half a millimeter). They are not capable of reaching deep within the asteroid’s core. To get a deeper look the spacecraft has a tool that blows nitrogen gas onto the surface that will force minerals up from a depth of about two inches. Even so, it’s pretty obvious that much about Bennu will remain unknown even if the mission is successful in achieving all of its goals.

But, a successful mission will at least tell the world one thing: can mining asteroid’s work? The gringa believes if great wealth is at stake there will be movers and shakers in this world who will make it work one way or another while pocketing a healthy profit in the process.

Source & Image Credit:  www.nasa.gov

 

 

 

 

 

Calling All Young People! Physics Is Phun!


If kids are finding science studies boring and exhibit no interest in pursuing a career in something like physics, they just haven’t made the right connections! Look, the future of our planet’s survival depends on every generation producing fantastic scientific minds with a passion for discovery. And, trust the gringa, science, especially physics, is anything BUT boring! I mean, just check out this amazing GIF and video that illustrate physics in action. One looks like dots traveling in a straight line but they are actually traveling on curves. The other looks like the dots are traveling in a circular pattern but they are actually traveling in a straight line:

tumblr_o17qz1y1Rf1r2geqjo1_540

Now that the gringa’s got your attention, what exactly can a person do as a physicist? Well, you can create really cool art like this or you could work for other people. If you work for NASA you can follow their astrophysics goal:  “Discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved and search for life on planets and other stars.” To do that involves all sorts of interesting work like:

  • Stargazing through incredible observatories like: Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope
  • Work with teams from all over the world: European Space Agency and Japan’s JAXA space agency
  • Perform all sorts of wacky experiments to test theories about things like: black holes, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, existence of extra-terrestrial life, suitability of distant planets to support life
  • Design any manner of dangerous stuff mom and dad won’t let you build in the garage: rockets, lasers, rocket fuel, robots, super colliders that annihilate atoms

So kids, get excited about science! If it’s boring in the classroom, search for inspiration. There are folks like physicist Derek Muller who makes science loads of fun. On his blog and YouTube channel, “Veritasium”, you can learn about science in a way that is interesting and also relevant to what the world needs to day. Check out one of the gringa’s favorite videos of Muller’s (grapes + microwave = plasma):

Look, kids, the truth is agencies like NASA needs you. Your mom and dad need you. The entire world needs you. Let’s face it, the world is in need of some major repair. The days of Batman and Flash Gordon are over. The heroes the world needs now are scientists. So, put on your goggles (and a cape if it inspires you) and get crackin’.

 

Sources: www.nasa.govhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHnyfMqiRRG1u-2MsSQLbXA, Tumblr_o17qz1y1Rf1r2geqjo1_540, www.facebook.com/physicsastrophysics

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Moon or Mars?


The gringa has been down in the dumps, a bit, but, I will soon bounce back and become moon-eyed over what will have to become my new pet project. You see, after getting me all excited and pumped about getting to Mars, Congress has gone and rained all over my parade, the ol’ party poopers.

You see, Congress just doesn’t have what it takes to believe in a starry-eyed dream. NASA’s dreams Congress wants to shoot down:

  • Landing a human on an asteroid by 2025
  • Manned mission to Mars in the 2030s
  • 2nd manned mission on the Moon

Congress had a hearing on these subjects. The gringa can just hear all the discouraged “Tsk, Tsking” that must have gone one amongst all these “responsible” folk who know nothing about dreaming big. If the responsible purse-string holders don’t get more details on NASAs budgetary needs for these goals, then NASA may only get approval for the Moon mission.

Now, the gringa does not deny that these goals are not just ambitious but, to some, may sound downright outrageous. But, hey, the reality is that it is the outrageous dreamers that brought us the telephone, computer, car, steam engine, etc., etc.

It is also true that much of the technology necessary to survive a mission to Mars doesn’t even exist except in the minds of scientists and their scratched out theories on paper. But isn’t that the very first step? Aren’t these outrageous dreams what inspires innovative minds to try something that seems impossible and, finally, to accomplish it? Isn’t that the greatest way to create history?

I mean, if it wasn’t for the dream of traveling through space and solving the inherent problems of that goal we would have never come up with things like digital music, lasers, etc. Developing science and technology to solve space exploration problems is not wasted taxpayer money. There are all sorts of benefits to Earth and humans with spin off technologies.

Congress even hinted at an ultimatum: Mars or the ISS. The money is simply not there to do both. The idea is being tossed around to ditch Mars and concentrate on the ISS and returning to the Moon. Some see the development of a Moon base as an opportunity to exploit the mineral resources of the Moon.

Well, Congress may be packed with a bunch of Negative Nellie Republicans, but the gringa is proud that her president is encouraging all the dreams of NASA. Not only is President Obama openly encouraging a return to the Moon and the establishment of a Moon Base, but he hopes NASA stays on track to get to Mars in the 2030. I guess one positive of the liberal mindset of a Democrat is that they dream big and believe nothing is impossible to achieve!

Although Obama has been supportive throughout his two terms in office, his last term is coming to an end soon. NASA realizes the very real possibility of a government transition and a new president that might just nix the Mars mission altogether. They have been enjoying this dream being supported for almost eight years and now have to consider the possibility of a newcomer dooming it. The gringa thinks that not only would that be small-minded, but also just downright mean.

However, it may not be all that surprising if a new president expects the space agency to turn its focus Moonward rather than Marsward. After all, that is the focus of the ESA. Europe wants to establish a lunar orbit working colony that remotely controls Moon-bots that work below on the surface.

With all its focus on Mars, NASA has only considered the Moon in the sense of it being a waystation on the way to the Red Planet that is the real goal. This strategy may have to be reconsidered. It seems that the ESA is not alone in thinking the Moon to be the most desireable space goal at the moment. Geological industry and geological related businesses are seeing that it may be a way of turning a profit. European businesses are ready to team up with the ESA and get a Moon mission off the ground.

Russia is also on board the Moon mission idea and has private sector partners that are putting together their plans for a Moon base to be a reality within another decade or so. The plan to go robotic, rather than have boots on the ground, is what may be the saving grace of this Russo-European Moon dream. It is much more feasible and economically achievable when human survival technology is taken out of the formula. Russia and Europe may end up leaving the Americans in their dust by not only achieving an orbital Moon base but also a similar orbital Mars base with astronauts orbiting safely and controlling rovers and robots down below on the dusty, red surface.

So, now the gringa may have to change her vocabulary. Instead of, “To Mars! To Mars!” I may have to channel the late, great Jackie Gleason, “To the Moon!”

Source:  www.nasa.gov

 

NASA Needs You!


Do you love anything that flies? Are you also a person who can organize and plan just about anything that, to others, seems a chaotic mess? Then NASA needs you.

Perhaps you like robots. Perhaps you like robots so much you’ve even stepped up your game and have built a few. Maybe you’ve got some big ideas and spectacular dreams but don’t know what to do with them. Well, NASA needs you.

Do you enjoy go-carts? Ever driven them? Worked on them? Built one? Did you enjoy all that tinkering? NASA needs you!

Are you a computer geek? Do you fantasize about putting all that keyboard pecking to use for the future of all humanity? I’m tellin’ you, NASA needs you!

Do you stargaze, with or without a telescope? NASA needs you!

NASA has all sorts of active challenges. These are opportunities for the general public to show the space agency just what they’ve got! Here’s your chance! You’re big break! If you have a crazy lab or workshop that you escape to where you invent all sorts of weird gadgets, you simply must read on because the gringa has got a treat prepared just for you! (Or a friend of yours, you can always pass the info along!)

Listed below are just a few of the current active challenges NASA has extended to the general public. Click on the links and explore NASA’s website if any of these challenges appeal to you!

  • “Sky For All: Air Mobility for 2035 and Beyond”. Develop ideas and technologies for the airspace of the future. Solve problems of air traffic management that will be dealing with crowded skies way beyond what we have today. Consider in your designs autonomous operations and cyber security. As a design for the future, twenty years from now it will not just be commercial airlines in the air. There will also be personal air vehicles, unmanned aircraft (drones), spacecraft and even stationary objects (such as wind turbines).

Future expectations is that air traffic management systems will be managing more than ten million aircraft in the skies. More than anything, this project is about public safety and also plans for poor weather conditions.

This challenge has a payout of $15,000 for the winning design. It is administered by HeroX and sponsored by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD). Registration officially opens December 21 and submission deadline is February 26, 2016.

  • “Swarmathon” Challenge is a robotics competition scheduled for April 18-22, 2016, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There are openings for 35 on-site teams and 23 virtual teams. The goal is to create cooperative robots that can operate autonomously on Mars.
  • “Human Exploration Rover” Challenge is open for student teams. It is organized by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. International team deadline is January 11, 2016. U.S. team registration deadline is February 8, 2016. The competition will take place April 7-9, 2016 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama. High school age and college age students are eligible to compete. They are to design, build and drive a human-powered rover that will navigate an obstacle course that will simulate the terrain of Mars. Interested U.S. students should contact Diedra Williams, (256) 544-5721, or send her an email at a.williams@nasa.gov. International students that are interested should contact Amy McDowell, (256) 544-8411, or send her an email at amy.mcdowell@nasa.gov. For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/eduation
  • “Sample Return Robot” Challenge wants innovators to build robots that can operate independently to locate, identify and collect samples, and return them to a location without the need of GPS or other navigation aids, within a specific time. This challenge is sponsored by Centennial Challenges Program. It awards $1.39 million dollars to the winning design. This is an ongoing annual challenge. Registration closes every January until this challenge is won. Level 1 Competition is scheduled for June, 2016 and Level 2 for September, 2016. For more info visit http://wp.wpi.edu/challenge and also visit nasa.gov/robot
  • “Enterprise Search Engine” Challenge seeks to improve search capabilities of its new search engine. The challenge awards $50,200 to the winning design. This specific search engine targets the day to day data gathering requirements of NASA employees. The challenge wants the design to enhance filtering, geolocation, content and imagery, among other things. This challenge closes February 10, 2016. For more information, visit topcoder.com
  • “Aurorasaurus.org” Challenge is for stargazers who enjoy the challenge of finding the aurora and helping others to see it, too. This challenge is sponsored by the National Science Foundation INSPIRE program. Awards are available and monthly badges can be earned. This is an ongoing challenge that is scheduled to be open indefinitely. There is no limit to participation. For more information, visit aurorasaurus.org.

These are not the only challenges that are going on right now. NASA is always updating their website with new challenges. Visit www.nasa.gov/solve to see what is currently happening. If any of this kind of stuff interests you, get involved. Some of these challenges, like the Aurorasaurus challenge, are great family projects. All you need is time and a willingness to sit out under the stars with your loved ones. And that is a challenge the gringa can most certainly win!

 

Source and Photo Credit: www.nasa.gov

 

 

Orbs In Orbit


When thinking about NASA and robots, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the robotic arm that is used frequently to snag things in space around the International Space Station. However, NASA is way beyond just a robotic arm. Entire robotic spacecrafts are the technologies that are in development. The ultimate gaming experience has got to be the joystick controls of these babies as they maneuver through their missions in orbit around Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope is just one such example.

Now, the Hubble takes beautiful panoramic space photos. What about if you need to pick a space splinter out of something. Are there robotic orbs designed for that kind of delicate work? Well, hopefully, in the future, if a satellite gets a speck of space dust in the wrong nook or cranny, NASA’s Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) should have the perfect set of robotic baby blue’s to get the job done. This robot is really an articulated borescope that has a zoom lens. Robotic eyes (that eighties song “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes” is now playing through my mind relentlessly).

VIPIR will play sidekick to Dextre, the handyman of the future who is already on the job. Dextre is a robot developed by the Canadian Space Agency. Ya know the good ol’ days when you pulled up to the full service lane at a gas station and the attendant came out to pump your gas, clean your windshield and check your tire pressure and fluid levels? Well, that’s kinda what Dextre’s job description is. Dextre is the critical element in NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM).  A two-armed robot, he demonstrates his abilities of servicing and refueling satellites in outer space. Although he’s not pumping crude. A fill-up from Dextre involves the transfer of xenon.

Now, the gringa’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. I’m sure my salary requirements are much less than Dextre’s maintenance expenses. I’m more than willing to put on a pair of coveralls, a cap and be ready for the “ding-ding” of a passing satellite or spaceship that needs their tank topped off. I do believe I finally see my chance at a space job I’m actually qualified for! My hopes are rising higher and higher that my astronaut dreams will some day come true.

Source:  www.nasa.gov

Photo credit:  www.news.yahoo.com

Robot Real Estate Developers


The gringa, most definitely a product of the eighties, has mental images of R2D2 rolling around beeping and twittering happily as he constructs a space hut, anticipating the imminent arrival of Mars colonists from Earth. Well, it could happen! Seriously. Well, maybe not the R2D2 part, but something very nearly like it.

As NASA explores creative, imaginative ideas and new technologies, 3D printing is at the forefront of their plan to robotically construct habitations that will await the arrival of new Earthling residents on the Red Planet. By doing so, they can save critical cargo space. If they don’t have to pack tools, parts, and building supplies that can instead be contrived on a 3D printer sent ahead to Mars, the astronauts can arrive with other critical cargo to further enable a long-term mission’s success.

The engineers and scientists hard at work at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama are making this a reality. The envisioned plan is to have mobile machines that work like a 3D printer delivered to Mars by robotic space delivery. These machines could then be remotely controlled from Earth. These state of the art contraptions could be designed to work with the raw materials found on Mars. They could be designed to exude natural resources and “print” the building materials to create structures. Astronauts could arrive on Mars to find robot erected, 3D printed shelters already in place with a welcome mat outside to scrape off the space dust of their long journey.

This technology is already being tested at the International Space Station (ISS). Crews on board ISS have been creating all sorts of projects like building wrenches from layered plastic filament. Such items then undergo durability testing to see if they will even work. Advances in the technology will eventually, hopefully, make it possible to upgrade from plastic wrenches to wrenches manufactured from metals like titanium, nickel and other alloys.

NASA continues to search for talent throughout the civilian sector to help the dream come true of landing a manned space mission on Mars. One way this is done is by creating challenges and competitions in the fields of science and technology. In their 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design competition, Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office walked away with the grand prize depicted in the above picture of their design “Icehouse”.

By partnering with talent NASA is accelerating its own capabilities in advancing technology and manufacturing. 3-D technology is now in the proving ground to see if it can be used to create many things that humans will need in order to survive a long term stay on Mars. Being able to arrive at the Red Planet and survive in this galactic wilderness, create their own tools, survival and building materials with the natural resources at hand and a 3-D printer is beyond the gringa’s comprehension and that’s hard to believe considering my vast and somewhat quirky imagination.

Source: http://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