The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow

Posted by | alan stern, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, new horizons, science, Space, TC, ultima thule | No Comments

Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

The New Horizons team reports the spacecraft is healthy and on track for the historic flyby of #UltimaThule just after midnight tonight! Watch flyby events live on NASATV and @JHUAPL starting at 2pm (ET): |

NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 31, 2018

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.

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Voyager 2 joins its twin in interstellar space

Posted by | Gadgets, NASA, science, Space, voyager, voyager 2 | No Comments

Voyager 2, the multi-planetary exploratory probe launched in 1977, has finally entered interstellar space, some six years after its twin, Voyager 1, did the same. It’s now about 11 billion miles from Earth, the second-farthest-out human-made object in space.

Interstellar space starts where the sun’s “heliosphere” ends — the big ball of radiation and plasma in which the planets bathe and by which they are protected. Both Voyagers have instruments on board that monitor all this stuff, and both have shown a major drop-off in electrical and plasma activity, suggesting they’ve crossed over.

The exact border of interstellar space is a matter of debate, a great deal of which occurred while Voyager 1 was on the very edge and scientists were arguing whether it was out or not. A consensus was reached, however, and most agree that both probes have now left the heliosphere.

They have not, however, left the solar system, defined more or less by the extent of the Oort cloud, an enormous collection of dust and small objects caught in the sun’s gravity (but just barely). Until the Voyagers leave that, in perhaps 30,000 years, they’re still technically in-system.

Interestingly, although Voyager 2 was the second to enter interstellar space, it was actually the first to launch. The risk of failure for these complex, ambitious probes was high enough that NASA felt it should build two and send them out one after another, and it so happened that Voyager 2 launched 16 days before Voyager 1. However, the latter’s trajectory caused it to exit the ecliptic (the flat disk in which most of the solar system’s objects are found) earlier and at a different angle.

That makes Voyager 2 NASA’s longest-running mission (though not the object in space for longest — early satellites are still floating around up there), and those working on it couldn’t be happier.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd at JPL, in a NASA news release. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”

Both Voyagers should continue operating for at least a few more years; their power sources are likely to go out around 2025. At that point they’ll have been in space sending back data for nearly 50 years. Congratulations to the team and, really, to humanity, for doing something so amazing.

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Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Posted by | Gadgets, Insight, mars, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and is collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.

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11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, international space station, ISS, NASA, Roscosmos, Space, TC | No Comments

It was November 20, 1998, when an unprecedented international coalition of astronomers, engineers and rocket scientists saw years of collaboration come to fruition with the launch of the International Space Station’s first component. Since then, the largest spacecraft ever built has hosted innumerable astronauts, experiments and other craft. Here are a few notable moments in the history of this inspiring and decades-spanning mission.

1984: Reagan proposes the ISS — without Russia

The space station was originally going to be a U.S. effort, but soon became a collaboration with Canada, Japan and Europe, excluding the then-USSR. American-Russian relations were strained then, as you may remember, and although many in the space industry itself would have preferred working together, the political climate did not permit it. Nevertheless, initial work began.

1993: Clinton adds Russia to the bill

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rejuvenation of international relations led President Bush to bring them into the program in a limited fashion, as a supplier and as a guest on a shuttle mission. The next year, however, President Clinton one-upped him with the announcement that Russia would be a full partner. This was both a practical and political decision: Russian involvement would save billions, but it also helped bring Russia on board with other issues, like ICBM de-proliferation efforts. At any rate, designs were finally beginning to be built.

1998: The first components, Zarya and Unity, launch to orbit

Endeavour approaches Zarya when the latter was the only component in place.

Though persona non grata at first, Russia had the privilege of launching the first core component of the ISS on November 20, 1998, the anniversary we are celebrating today. The Zarya Functional Cargo Block is still up there, still being used, forming the gateway to the Russian side of the station.

One month later, Space Shuttle Endeavour took off from Launch Complex 39A (we’ve been there) carrying Unity Node 1. This too is up there now, attached since that day to Zarya.

2000: The first of many long-term occupants arrive

From left: Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev, aboard the station.

Almost exactly a year after Zarya went up, the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS — the first of 230 people so far to call the orbiting structure home. Bill Shepherd was NASA’s first representative, flying with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; they would stay for about 141 days.

2003: Columbia disaster delays expansion

The fatal breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry following its 28th mission was tragedy enough that other shuttle missions were scrubbed for over two years. As these were the primary means of the U.S. adding to and maintaining the ISS, this responsibility passed to Roscosmos until shuttle launches resumed in 2005; crewed launches wouldn’t resume until mid-2006.

2007: Kibo goes up

Numerous modules have been added to the ISS over the years, but Japan’s Kibo is the largest. It took multiple missions to deliver all the pieces, and was only made possible by earlier missions that had expanded the solar power capacity of the station. Kibo contains a ton of reconfigurable space accessible from the pressurized interior, and has been popular for both private and public experiments that must be conducted in space.

2010: Enter the Cupola

If Kibo is the largest component, the Cupola is likely the most famous. The giant 7-window bubble looks like something out of science fiction (specifically, the front end of the Millennium Falcon) and is the location for the station’s most striking photography, both inside and out.

2014: Beautiful timelapses

With the Cupola in place, capturing imagery of the Earth from this amazing view became easier — especially with the increasingly high-quality digital cameras brought aboard by talented astronaut-photographers like Alexander Gerst and Don Pettit. The many, many photos taken out of this aperture have been formed into innumerable beautiful timelapses and desktop backgrounds, as well as witnessing incredible phenomena like aurora and lightning storms from a new and valuable perspective. It’s hard to pick just one, but Don Pettit’s “The World Outside My Window” above is a fabulous example, and Gerst’s 4K compilation is another.

2015: Gennady Padalka sets time in space record

During his fifth flight to space, Gennady Padalka set a world record for most time in space: When he returned to Earth he had logged a total of 878 days and change. That’s well ahead of the competition, which is almost exclusively Russian — though NASA’s Peggy Whitson is right up there with 666 days over three missions.

2016: Chinese station calling ISS, please pick up

It’s hardly crowded in space, but it can get lonely up there. So it’s nice that those who have the honor to fly reach out to each other. In this case China’s taikonaut Jing Haipeng recorded a heartwarming video message from the Chinese Tiangong-2 space station greeting the incoming ISS crew and praising the community of global cooperation that makes all this possible.

2018: Soyuz accident threatens long-term occupation

A crewed mission to the ISS with astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin encountered a serious fault during launch, fortunately resulting in no injuries or fatalities but shaking up the space community. The Soyuz rocket and capsule had more than proven themselves over the years but no risks could be taken with human life, and future missions were delayed. It was possible that for the first time since it was first entered, the ISS would be empty as its crew left with no replacements on the way.

Fortunately the investigation has concluded and a new mission is planned for early December, which will prevent such an historic absence.

2019? First commercial crew mission and beyond

Russia has borne sole responsibility for all crewed launches for years; the U.S. has been planning to separate itself from this dependence by fostering a new generation of crew-capable capsules that can meet and exceed the safety and reliability of the Soyuz system. SpaceX and Boeing both plan 2019 flights for their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules — though slipping dates and new regulatory attention may delay those further.

The ISS has a bright future despite its remarkable 20 years of continuous operation. It’s funded more or less through 2025, but there’s talk of new space stations from Russia and China both, while the U.S. eyes lunar orbit for its next big endeavor. It’s hard to imagine space now without an ISS full of people in it, however, and falling launch costs may mean that its life can be extended even further and for less cost. Here’s hoping the ISS has another two decades in front of it.

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The space pen became the space pen 50 years ago

Posted by | fisher space pen, Gadgets, NASA, Space | No Comments

Everyone knows about the space pen. NASA spent millions on R&D to create the ultimate pen that would work in zero gravity and the result was this incredible machine. Well, no. In fact it was made by a pen manufacturer in 1966 — but it wasn’t until October of 1968 that it went into orbit and fulfilled its space pen destiny.

The pen was created by pen maker (naturally) Paul Fisher, who used $1 million of his own money to create the AG-7 anti-gravity pen. As you may or may not know, the innovation was a pressurized ink cartridge and gel ink that would deploy reliably regardless of orientation, temperature or indeed the presence of gravity.

He sent it to NASA, which was of course the only organization reliably worried about making things work in microgravity, and they loved it. In fact, the Russians started using it shortly afterwards, as well.

Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele took the pens aboard with them for the Apollo 7 mission, which launched on October 11, 1968, and they served them well over the next 11 days in orbit.

A 50th anniversary edition of the pen is now available to people who have a lot of money and love gold stuff. It’s $500, a limited edition of 500, and made of “gold titanium nitride plated brass,” and it comes with a case and commemorative plaque with a quote from Cunningham:

“Fifty years ago, I flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.”

Okay, that’s pretty cool. Presumably astronauts get a lifetime supply of these things, though.

Here’s to the Fisher space pen, an example of American ingenuity and simple, reliable good design that’s persisted in use and pop culture for half a century.

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Mars Rover Curiosity is switching brains so it can fix itself

Posted by | Gadgets, jpl, mars rover, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

When you send something to space, it’s good to have redundancy. Sometimes you want to send two whole duplicate spacecraft just in case — as was the case with Voyager — but sometimes it’s good enough to have two of critical components. Mars Rover Curiosity is no exception, and it is now in the process of switching from one main “brain” to the other so it can do digital surgery on the first.

Curiosity landed on Mars with two central computing systems, Side-A and Side-B (not left brain and right brain — that would invite too much silliness). They’re perfect duplicates of each other, or were — it was something of a bumpy ride, after all, and cosmic radiation may flip a bit here and there.

The team was thankful to have made these preparations when, on sol 200 in February of 2013 (we’re almost to sol 2,200 now), the Side-A computer experienced a glitch that ended up taking the whole rover offline. The solution was to swap over to Side-B, which was up and running shortly afterwards and sending diagnostic data for its twin.

Having run for several years with no issues, Side-B is now, however, having its own problems. Since September 15 it has been unable to record mission data, and it doesn’t appear to be a problem that the computer can solve itself. Fortunately, in the intervening period, Side-A has been fixed up to working condition — though it has a bit less memory than it used to, since some corrupted sectors had to be quarantined.

“We spent the last week checking out Side A and preparing it for the swap,” said Steven Lee, deputy project manager of the Curiosity program at JPL, in a mission status report. “We are operating on Side A starting today, but it could take us time to fully understand the root cause of the issue and devise workarounds for the memory on Side B. It’s certainly possible to run the mission on the Side-A computer if we really need to. But our plan is to switch back to Side B as soon as we can fix the problem to utilize its larger memory size.”

No timeline just yet for how that will happen, but the team is confident that they’ll have things back on track soon. The mission isn’t in jeopardy — but this is a good example of how a good system of redundancies can add years to the life of space hardware.

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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches tonight to ‘touch the sun’

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, parker solar probe, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA’s ambitious mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before is set to launch in the small hours between Friday and Saturday — at 3:33 AM Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be precise. The Parker Solar Probe, after a handful of gravity assists and preliminary orbits, will enter a stable orbit around the enormous nuclear fireball that gives us all life and sample its radiation from less than 4 million miles away. Believe me, you don’t want to get much closer than that.

If you’re up late tonight (technically tomorrow morning), you can watch the launch live on NASA’s stream.

This is the first mission named after a living researcher, in this case Eugene Parker, who in the ’50s made a number of proposals and theories about the way that stars give off energy. He’s the guy who gave us solar wind, and his research was hugely influential in the study of the sun and other stars — but it’s only now that some of his hypotheses can be tested directly. (Parker himself visited the craft during its construction, and will be at the launch. No doubt he is immensely proud and excited about this whole situation.)

“Directly” means going as close to the sun as technology allows — which leads us to the PSP’s first major innovation: its heat shield, or thermal protection system.

There’s one good thing to be said for the heat near the sun: it’s a dry heat. Because there’s no water vapor or gases in space to heat up, find some shade and you’ll be quite comfortable. So the probe is essentially carrying the most heavy-duty parasol ever created.

It’s a sort of carbon sandwich, with superheated carbon composite on the outside and a carbon foam core. All together it’s less than a foot thick, but it reduces the temperature the probe’s instruments are subjected to from 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 — actually cooler than it is in much of the U.S. right now.

Go on – it’s quite cool.

The car-sized Parker will orbit the sun and constantly rotate itself so the heat shield is facing inward and blocking the brunt of the solar radiation. The instruments mostly sit behind it in a big insulated bundle.

And such instruments! There are three major experiments or instrument sets on the probe.

WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) is a pair of wide-field telescopes that will watch and image the structure of the corona and solar wind. This is the kind of observation we’ve made before — but never from up close. We generally are seeing these phenomena from the neighborhood of the Earth, nearly 100 million miles away. You can imagine that cutting out 90 million miles of cosmic dust, interfering radiation and other nuisances will produce an amazingly clear picture.

SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation) looks out to the side of the craft to watch the flows of electrons as they are affected by solar wind and other factors. And on the front is the Solar Probe Cup (I suspect this is a reference to the Ray Bradbury story, “Golden Apples of the Sun”), which is exposed to the full strength of the sun’s radiation; a tiny opening allows charged particles in, and by tracking how they pass through a series of charged windows, they can sort them by type and energy.

FIELDS is another that gets the full heat of the sun. Its antennas are the ones sticking out from the sides — they need to in order to directly sample the electric field surrounding the craft. A set of “fluxgate magnetometers,” clearly a made-up name, measure the magnetic field at an incredibly high rate: two million samples per second.

They’re all powered by solar panels, which seems obvious, but actually it’s a difficult proposition to keep the panels from overloading that close to the sun. They hide behind the shield and just peek out at an oblique angle, so only a fraction of the radiation hits them.

Even then, they’ll get so hot that the team needed to implement the first-ever active water cooling system on a spacecraft. Water is pumped through the cells and back behind the shield, where it is cooled by, well, space.

The probe’s mission profile is a complicated one. After escaping the clutches of the Earth, it will swing by Venus, not to get a gravity boost, but “almost like doing a little handbrake turn,” as one official described it. It slows it down and sends it closer to the sun — and it’ll do that seven more times, each time bringing it closer and closer to the sun’s surface, ultimately arriving in a stable orbit 3.83 million miles above the surface — that’s 95 percent of the way from the Earth to the sun.

On the way it will hit a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour, which will make it the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

Parker will make 24 total passes through the corona, and during these times communication with Earth may be interrupted or impractical. If a solar cell is overheating, do you want to wait 20 minutes for a decision from NASA on whether to pull it back? No. This close to the sun even a slight miscalculation results in the reduction of the probe to a cinder, so the team has imbued it with more than the usual autonomy.

It’s covered in sensors in addition to its instruments, and an onboard AI will be empowered to make decisions to rectify anomalies. That sounds worryingly like a HAL 9000 situation, but there are no humans on board to kill, so it’s probably okay.

The mission is scheduled to last seven years, after which time the fuel used to correct the craft’s orbit and orientation is expected to run out. At that point it will continue as long as it can before drift causes it to break apart and, one rather hopes, become part of the sun’s corona itself.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch early Saturday morning, and we’ll update this post when it takes off successfully or, as is possible, is delayed until a later date in the launch window.

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NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Posted by | DIY, Education, Gadgets, Government, jpl, mars rover, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.

Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.

The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”

The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.

So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.

There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.

“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”

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NASA’s 3D-printed Mars Habitat competition doles out prizes to concept habs

Posted by | 3d printing, Gadgets, Government, hardware, mars, NASA, science, Space | No Comments

A multi-year NASA contest to design a 3D-printable Mars habitat using on-planet materials has just hit another milestone — and a handful of teams have taken home some cold, hard cash. This more laid-back phase had contestants designing their proposed habitat using architectural tools, with the five winners set to build scale models next year.

Technically this is the first phase of the third phase — the (actual) second phase took place last year and teams took home quite a bit of money.

The teams had to put together realistic 3D models of their proposed habitats, and not just in Blender or something. They used Building Information Modeling software that would require these things to be functional structures designed down to a particular level of detail — so you can’t just have 2D walls made of “material TBD,” and you have to take into account thickness from pressure sealing, air filtering elements, heating, etc.

The habitats had to have at least a thousand square feet of space, enough for four people to live for a year, along with room for the machinery and paraphernalia associated with, you know, living on Mars. They must be largely assembled autonomously, at least enough that humans can occupy them as soon as they land. They were judged on completeness, layout, 3D-printing viability and aesthetics.

So although the images you see here look rather sci-fi, keep in mind they were also designed using industrial tools and vetted by experts with “a broad range of experience from Disney to NASA.” These are going to Mars, not paperback. And they’ll have to be built in miniature for real next year, so they better be realistic.

The five winning designs embody a variety of approaches. Honestly all these videos are worth a watch; you’ll probably learn something cool, and they really give an idea of how much thought goes into these designs.

Zopherus has the whole print taking place inside the body of a large lander, which brings its own high-strength printing mix to reinforce the “Martian concrete” that will make up the bulk of the structure. When it’s done printing and embedding the pre-built items like airlocks, it lifts itself up, moves over a few feet, and does it again, creating a series of small rooms. (They took first place and essentially tied the next team for take-home case, a little under $21K.)

AI SpaceFactory focuses on the basic shape of the vertical cylinder as both the most efficient use of space and also one of the most suitable for printing. They go deep on the accommodations for thermal expansion and insulation, but also have thought deeply about how to make the space safe, functional, and interesting. This one is definitely my favorite.

Kahn-Yates has a striking design, with a printed structural layer giving way to a high-strength plastic layer that lets the light in. Their design is extremely spacious but in my eyes not very efficiently allocated. Who’s going to bring apple trees to Mars? Why have a spiral staircase with such a huge footprint? Still, if they could pull it off, this would allow for a lot of breathing room, something that will surely be of great value during a year or multi-year stay on the planet.

SEArch+/Apis Cor has carefully considered the positioning and shape of its design to maximize light and minimize radiation exposure. There are two independent pressurized areas — everyone likes redundancy — and it’s built using a sloped site, which may expand the possible locations. It looks a little claustrophobic, though.

Northwestern University has a design that aims for simplicity of construction: an inflatable vessel provides the base for the printer to create a simple dome with reinforcing cross-beams. This practical approach no doubt won them points, and the inside, while not exactly roomy, is also practical in its layout. As AI SpaceFactory pointed out, a dome isn’t really the best shape (lots of wasted space) but it is easy and strong. A couple of these connected at the ends wouldn’t be so bad.

The teams split a total of $100K for this phase, and are now moving on to the hard part: actually building these things. In spring of 2019 they’ll be expected to have a working custom 3D printer that can create a 1:3 scale model of their habitat. It’s difficult to say who will have the worst time of it, but I’m thinking Kahn-Yates (that holey structure will be a pain to print) and SEArch+/Apis (slope, complex eaves and structures).

The purse for the real-world construction is an eye-popping $2 million, so you can bet the competition will be fierce. In the meantime, seriously, watch those videos above, they’re really interesting.

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First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage

Posted by | cubesat, Gadgets, Insight, jpl, NASA, science, Space, TC | No Comments

The InSight launch earlier this month had a couple of stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth — by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original, but it’s still cool.

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.

That changed on May 5, when the InSight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home to inform mission control that all was well.

But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like InSight.

Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.

The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that InSight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

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