First some exciting news about space-flight. Then I’ll finish with a followup (and speculative) reflection on our recent multiple encounters with space rocks.
== NASA's NIAC: New and Innovative Advance Concepts ==
Soon I will be off to participate as an advisor in the Spring meeting of NASA-NIAC in Chicago. NIAC is a far-out, little research program at NASA, trying to enable big things. NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Its budget last year was $5.5M, or about 3/100ths of 1% of the $18 billion NASA budget. Its charter is to Change the Possible in aerospace. NIAC studies exciting, unexplored missions that won't be "ready for prime time" for a decade or more. Here are a few projects they funded last year, chosen at random:
• A researcher at USC is trying to "3-d print" whole buildings with quick drying concrete. Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with NIAC to see if it's possible to do this on the Moon or on Mars, using local soil, to build infrastructure in preparation for a future NASA mission.
• NIAC has a researcher at Draper Labs, Kevin Duda, who is working on a space suit that would help astronauts feel a sense of "down" while in space for a long time. It might also help them exercise just by doing their regular movements. The suit has gyros on it that resist motion intelligently for that sense of "down".
• Kendra Short at JPL is trying to print small spacecraft. Not 3-D printing, but rather flexible printed electronics, batteries, sensors, everything on a sheet of mylar or even paper. This could be used anywhere in the solar system to rapidly design and print useful electronics.
• An interesting robotic rover is being designed with Mars in mind. Adrian Agogino is adapting tensegrity structures to make an inexpensive and durable rover, the Super Ball Bot, that you could simply drop down to Mars — no a parachute or airbags needed.
• Here's an example of something NIAC is funding on life support systems: Michael Flynn is developing Water Walls, Redundant Life Support Architecture, a concept to put the waste water processing into the walls of a spacecraft so that the water and waste would protect against radiation, too.
• NIAC is funding a small asteroid mining study. With the Robotic Asteroid Explorer, Mark M. Cohen is trying to figure out if mining an asteroid could ever make real business sense. If so, what might be valuable to mine in space, and how could it be accomplished?
One of the coolest parts of NIAC is how open it is: info about all their studies is freely available at http://www.nasa.gov/niac. Also, they have their projects report out to the program office at public meetings, the NIAC Symposiums. The next is in Chicago from March 12-14th. See their website for details on the Spring Symposium.
A way cool concept that emerged from MIT, JPL and NASA NIAC... a Phobos mission (to replace the doomed Russian one) would start with an orbiter that then deploys several small "hedgehog" landers that fling themselves across the microgravity surface by sudden tilts driven by gyros and flywheels. I have long pushed for Phobos as a target. It could very well be one of the most valuable sites in the solar system.
An electric sail produces propulsion power for a spacecraft by utilizing the solar wind (charged particles) instead of light. The sail features electrically charged long and thin metal tethers that interact with the solar wind. As illustrated in EXISTENCE. Now see plans for the real thing.
Not to be missed! Google has created a visualization of the 100,000 stars nearest to the solar system, based on actual astronomical data. You can zoom in all the way to the solar system to see how small Neptune's orbit is relative to the Oort Cloud, or zoom right out to see how puny 100,000 stars is in just our quarter of the Milky Way galaxy.
To recap: one asteroid - about 50 meters across - zipped by Earth from the south, closer than our communication satellites, just hours after another - perhaps 15 meters across - plummeted in from the north and gave up more energy than a hydrogen bomb as it broke apart high over over Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, briefly outshining the sun and shattering hundreds of windows. Soon reports came in of lesser bollides over Cuba and San Francisco, leading one of you to write in that February 16 began featuring regular meteor showers a few years ago. (The "Febrids"?) So mark your calendars for next year, you northern hemisphere folks.
All this ruckus led to my serving another stint as astronomy pundit on BBC. My job on-air was to reassure that there would be no radiation… that in fact, bollides like this one seem to strike our planet once a decade or so, but always till now over open ocean or deserts or countryside. (In the 1970s one such event, off Japan, almost triggered a rise in DEFCON alert level at the US NORAD!) This was the first ever to perturb a city.
Only now another quirky insight, offered by amateur astronomer Charles Smarr, who wrote to me in order to comment that the Russian bollide seems to have crossed the sky in a glancing path. This, plus the fact that so little meteoritic material appears to have been collected on the ground, suggests a possibility… just a thought, till disproved (and I expect it will be!)… that a large portion or two of the shattering chondrite might have skipped back out again, re-entering space. Indeed, since this path might emulate that of an aerobraking spacecraft, is it worth pondering whether any chunks might have entered Earth orbit? Or Earth-accompanying solar orbit.
Again, seems unlikely... or that we'd have heard about it by now. Still. Any of you brainy CONTRARY BRIN sophonts out there care to look into this for us? Report back under Comments, below.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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