Posted tagged ‘spacecraft’

THE VOYAGE OF GLIESE 1 – Part I – Exploring GL581g

October 2, 2010

Voyager Spacecraft are Role Models for Gliese 1

This is a follow-on blog article that discusses the possibility of an exploratory visit to the newly discovered, Earth-like exoplanet GL581g. You may click here to view the earlier blog article on GL581 (the red dwarf) and its six (or more) exoplanets.

Based on our preliminary calculations, it will take approximately 30.2 years to travel to the GL581 area, and this is at about two-thirds the speed of light.

Human spaceflight for this first voyage is not desirable. The decision has been made to make the flight of Gliese 1 a fully robotic mission. Although this will be the most far-reaching spaceflight mission yet attempted, the great design and development progress in robotic spacecraft by many of our spacefaring nations inspires confidence.  This is especially true when we consider the Voyager spacecrafts (#1 and #2) which at this point have gone farther than any other robotic spacecraft to date.

There are a great many important issues to be considered before we even begin this program. Let’s look at some of the ones at the top of the list.

Space telescope research before spacecraft? The ideal first step would be to further verify GL581g by looking for it by using a new telescope system called the Terrestrial Planet Finder.

Yes, I have read about that, but I understand that the TPF program was cancelled or put on hold. That is correct and now the idea is to add the TPF features to the Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Planetary scientist Sara Seager discusses this in her book, Is There Life Out There?

So, we wait until the Webb Telescope is launched and in use, and will it have the occulter unit included in the final assembly? We think so, but at this writing we are not certain. We are contacting Dr. Seager to get an update in that regard. As for waiting on the JWST, that is not a long wait. It is scheduled for launch in 2014.

A Parallel Program to include JWST investigation during the design, build and test of Gliese 1. The Gliese 1 spacecraft will be designed to travel to relatively nearby exo-planetary systems. If for some reason, GL581g is found not to be an Earth-like planet with the promise of a life supporting environment, then the Gliese spacecraft is simply re-assigned (before its launch) to a different exo-planetary system. Building this system while also using the JWST to probe GL581g and other exoplanet candidates is efficient use and development of space-related, scientific technology.

Well that sounds like a great idea, but good grief we are talking about very, very large budgets. Who is going to spring for that? You are right, and to do this we are talking about an immense change in governmental commitments to space research and exploration. In this regard, as we have mentioned before, no one government or private research organization will be able to fund this. It must be a fully joint effort by all the spacefaring nations on Earth.

Gliese 1 exploratory spacecraft is expected to achieve a reconnaissance orbit around GL581g. The sensitive equipment on the spacecraft is expected to confirm that the exoplanet can and may actually support life. This is a more detailed and critical assessment than what has been accomplished byboth land-based and space-born telescopes like the JWST.

OK, then why are we not sending a lander onto GL581g to make contact? That is not an option with regard to the design of the Gliese1 spacecraft. A lander is not an included option. Additionally, until we get more detailed biochemical as well as geological assessments from the orbiting spacecraft it is too early to consider a lander probe. Most importantly, in honor of our long-held principles, “we come in peace, with intent to do no harm.”

Deep Space communications with Gliese 1 could be a challenge; however, our success with the Voyager craft is encouraging. In any case it is expected that the Deep Space Network will be expanded and upgraded to ensure that we can sustain regular data and command exchanges with the spacecraft. This is certainly going to produce dramatic breakthroughs in deep space communications.

Hmmmm, we have had some problems with communications with the Mars rovers. Doesn’t it follow that in the deep space where Gliese 1 will be that these problems will be even greater? Yes, that is a good question, and the planning for this spacecraft calls for greater AI(artificial intelligence) programs and devices that allow Gliese 1 to diagnose and correct many of its problems on its own. This will be more than the automatic shut down modes we have experienced with many other rovers and spacecraft.

Like the Voyagers, Gliese 1 is a one way space exploration program. As a result this spacecraft will carry with it, extensive assessment technology that will give us as detailed information (visual and data) of GL581g. The spacecraft also, powered by radioisotope technology, is expected to continue full operation for a decade following its successful encounter and orbiting of GL581g. Again, the incredible success we are having with the Voyager craft demonstrates that we can succeed in this respect.

Whoowee, that is exciting!  What if there is human life on GL581g and they take offense at our prying and destroy Gliese1? Well, that could certainly be a possibility, but there could be no real proof that the spacecraft was destroyed by humans rather than either a malfunction on cosmic accident. This is a major risk in this type of exploration just like so many throughout the history of humankind, but look at all we have learned and mastered by taking such risks.

The actual discovery of life, in any form, on GL581g will dramatically change the lives of all of us on this planet. We expect this and in our design of the spacecraft in addition to our many assessment systems and protocols we have set up a network report protocol that will send back to Earth, for public broadcast, images and data that let all of us share in this remarkable exploration. Maybe we will even receive an image of ET waving to us.

Thinking about that feedback is both exciting and sort of spooky. I am not sure how I will really react to that revelation. I think I will be jumping with joy, but maybe not. We understand that. Reactions to proof of life elsewhere in the galaxy and the universe will have a shock effect on all of us. The joy is knowing we are no longer alone. The worry will be manifold as we are deluged with sci-fi histrionics and a new application of the superstitious warnings of those who have trouble accepting these facts. None of this will eradicate the fact that there is life out there.  Me, I hear great music and have beautiful visions of a whole new future for all of us.

Well, we have just considered a few of the important issues involved in this project.  We need to consider more. We will do this in one more blog article to follow this one. We hope you will join us and follow along.  Please we urge your comments, questions, and scientific corrections and additions. Until next week – Look up and ask: Quo Vadis?


Image of Voyager Spacecraft – courtesy of NASA.


THE GLIESE EXPEDITION – Only Very Young Astronauts Need Apply

September 30, 2010

GL581 (Red Dwarf) - Exoplanets too distant to be seen.

Yes, extra-solar GL581g has been discovered as a definite Earth-like exoplanet. It could very well have an atmosphere and water; important life support ingredients.

Unofficial comments about a future mission to GL581g are already filling social networks. The key questionis will that expedition ever happen? A large chorus quickly shout YES, but a more sullen, conservative audience expresses resistant doubts.  Well, lets join the “can do” crowd and see just what it would take to visit the Red Dwarf and its string of planets; especially GL581g.

First there is the matter of distance. GL581 and its solar system is 20 light years away. That converts to 117,572,507,463,672.14 Miles. This is not just an around the corner distance. Current spacecraft and propulsion systems would not carry humans that distance unless we used sci-fi science and put the explorers in deep freeze for years and years.

Oh, well then lets just forget it. NO! Read on to see what can be done.

What about time-lapse? Considering the distance cited above we need to be able to make the journey at near the speed of light . Assuming we could achieve a propulsion system that could provide a thrust equal to 2/3 the speed of light (199841.653 km/s) which converts to 447,032,987 miles per hour, we could achieve this speed. It would take us 30.2 years to reach GL581.

Oh, well, see lets just forget it! NO! There is still more to consider. Please read on.

Warp Drive or what propulsion system? You can forget sci-fi science warp drive stuff at the moment and instead think about a propulsion system that could supply constant acceleration such as an expansion of the VASIMR propulsion system concept. To help you understand this take some time to understand acceleration, velocity and speed.  Any good physics text on motion should give you all you would need.

O.K, so we could get there in less than 30 + years? Not in the beginning. It is best to plan around that time factor.

Nuclear Power (Fusion) is a must. To reach the desired state of constant acceleration and to sustain it we need an energy source that can support the expedition for longer than twice the one-way flight time (We do plan to come back to report our discoveries). Right now the type of energy source that could be installed and operated in a spacecraft does not exist. There are many critical breakthroughs that must be achieved for this to become a reality. Roskosmos of Russia is working on nuclear power propulsion and NASA did once, and must start again – NOW!

Humph, most folks are scared silly of nuclear power so is that even something we should think about? YES!  We just need to grow up to where we can manage nuclear energy responsibly and safely.  The U.S Navy does it all the time, so….?

The spacecraft design. Unlike the concept of Earthship I, a spaceship under constant acceleration will create its own artificial gravity that will offset the effects of long-term exposure to weightlessness and the associated physiological effects on astronauts. Obviously in addition to the aforementioned propulsion system, the spacecraft must be designed to accommodate a crew over an extended journey. Protection from cosmic effects (radiation, meteor strikes, supernovae events, and black holes are serious hazards). Entirely new design criteria must evolve and should be aided by the spacecraft designs we have made and will develop for exploration of our own solar system.

Well seems to me we should consider the first voyage based on a totally robotic crew. This could enable us to do out first exploration more safely and at less cost. YES, that is correct and is in the plan.

Good, now who is going to foot the bill for all of this? The U.S. Congress? NO, not entirely. The only way this is going to come about is through an international effort that is represented by a formal international space organization that shares in all aspects of the expedition.  To see what we mean review again the details in Part III of the Earthship I blog article.

Mission 1 of the Gliese Expedition will be a robotic mission that will allow us to assess many factors involved with a very long-term, deep space exploration. This will be a less expensive first start and will also give us time to fully organize the development of the International Space Organization. Unless we can assure this new spacefaring unity and comradeship, our success in deep space exploration will be extremely limited.

O.K., so what is next? Well we have a lot more to present and to discuss with you so we are going to do at least one follow on blog article that will present our ideas about that first, robotic , voyage to GL581. We urge you to plan a return visit (in a view days) for our presentation of The Voyage of GLIESE 1.


Astrophotograph of GL581 – Red Dwarf. Courtesy of Waddell Robey and (See copyright notice on the image, please).




September 4, 2010

In general, throughout humankind’s history the only explorations that have drawn and kept our attention are those that are great successes. Certainly, there have been many of them, and each has moved humankind forward in our evolution. Some of the failed expeditions did grab our attention because we came to closely identify with the explorers. This is certainly the case in all of NASA’s many expeditions, of which, thankfully, there have only been  limited failures.

Most exploration programs and the people who are involved are bold and very courageous. This basic ethic should not change. Now that we are nearing the challenges and opportunities to explore more of our solar system, missions that involve astronauts need to concentrate on factors that enhance success of each mission. That is right, “we emphasize the positive”..[to]..” eliminate the negative.”

Part of the emphasis process is to design missions that allow the exploration team to assess their new environments and to progress in an orderly, highly scientific manner. Let’s take everyone’s favorite expedition; putting humans on Mars. Well we will do that, but to do it successfully and with a high degree of new discoveries we should consider a step by step approach. No, these would not be baby steps. Each sub-mission, if you wish, would be directly related to the key mission of landing astronauts on Mars.

In two related blogs, we present ideas and viewpoints that directly deal with both spacecraft and astronaut well-being such as the effects of weightlessness.  The concept of a “built-in-LEO” spacecraft/space-station we have proven with the ISS, and to expand upon that would be one of those sub-mission steps. This would be particularly true if the new spacecraft/space-station was a blend of the ISS and the super shuttle we previously discussed in the “spacecraft” link above.

Another and related sub-mission step would be the inclusion in the spacecraft design provisions of an antigravity module that would address the need to protect the crew from exposure to long duration weightlessness. This same design challenge should and would be expected to address the issue of strong cosmic radiation on both crew and equipment.

Considering just the sub-missions above, we can easily envision the creation of a true spaceship that, in essence, becomes an exploration vessel in the same tradition as its centuries earlier seagoing exploration vessels. In this concept, the combo super-shuttle and spaceship design becomes our operations base whether the target is Mars, the Moon, or one of the other planetary bodies.  This concept was presented earlier is a related blog series (Parts 1-5) OF ASTEROIDS AND ASTROBOTS.

We accomplish in these primary sub-mission the creation of both the concept of a spaceship exploration vessel and the development of an exploration strategy that uses our super-shuttle space-station as the base of all our exploratory operations.  No longer does each mission have to be launched, expensively, from Earth. Only crews and supplies are launched in regular scheduled supply missions by commercial space contractors. Additionally, our exploratory vessel becomes a temporary space-station that orbits a target planetary body during a long-term and extensive robotic and human study of the planet. Mission durations will be extensive because crews will spend more time within the spaceship than on the planetary body thus reducing exposure to hazardous conditions.

Spacecraft Docking At Space-station

Successive sub-mission steps are performed, as required, to set up the temporary, orbiting space-station base at a selected solar system site. Additionally, excursions by both robots and astronauts onto the planetary body include more sub-mission steps. Importantly no efforts are made to establish a permanent base on a planet until the first full-length exploration mission has been completed and data and research results fully evaluated. One expected exception will be the creation of a permanent International Lunar Research Park as envisioned by The Moon Society.

So, is this concept really an assurance of a no-fail exploration policy? What it does is represent a planned best effort to emphasize the positive and to reduce the known impact of hazardous conditions. The aim is safe, extended exploratory missions that are highly productive. In all cases, failures can occur, but the concept is to anticipate them and to significantly reduce their impact when they do happen.  This is not a new concept. This very anticipatory operations plan dates all the way back to history’s earliest exploration missions. We, today, are just modernizing that policy and making it more effective and productive.  We want all of our exploration projects to be beneficial to and remembered by all humankind.


Jupiter and two moons:  Astrophotograph by the author.

Image of spacecraft docking with space-station. Courtesy, Flickr,


August 25, 2010

Sailing Bark Europa

I have always regretted my decision to not stay on extended active duty to take part in a Department of Defense research project to Antarctica. It was an immense opportunity that is still sadly missed. Whereas most of us never have the opportunity to participate in a major exploration project, I was lucky and instead turned it away. Just forget about it, right? No, there can soon be ways to become an active explorer; right in your own home or in school.

Additionally, it will be a good many generations before the majority of humankind travels out into space. This, too, can be an exploration that we can initially experience here on our home planet; in fact in our own homes or schools.  This can be accomplished by expanding the already impressive virtual reality (VR) systems and programs such as Nintendo Wii, Second Life, ActiveWorlds, and others.

Right now each of the above entertainment VR systems offer direct interactive involvement in a virtual world that includes some zones devoted to the exploring of our natural environment and space.  Each, clearly shows that we can use this technology to allow us to personally experience key moments in history, or great exploratory expeditions of the past, or to take part in new explorations into the sciences and outer space.

Using the “Second Life” virtual world concept, imagine creating your own astro-avatar that joins with other astro-avatars as they board their spacecraft for an initial visit to Mars. You would not be alone.  In the social media concept of  “Second Life” you would share your experience with other astro-avatars like yourself. This is an exploratory learning experience that an entire family could participate in with the right computer systems setup.

In another example, we insert a VR history module into our system. We create an avatar for ourselves that blends in with the historical era. Lets say we want to be part of Admiral Richard Byrd’s expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole.  The module integrates us into a dramatic historical series that allows us to experience and not simply read about these great expeditions. We, as avatars, are members of the exploration party, not just bystanders.

In the vast realm and challenges of education, the use of VR systems holds great promise for enabling students to enrich their regular learning by directly experiencing specific historical and/or scientific material.  It is like adding a whole new dimension to a youngster’s grasp of a topic, or procedure, or historical event.  To read a more detailed discussion of VR education systems please consider visiting The Virtual Educator.

There is a much design and system development challenge to bring this kind of VR experience into being.  We are partly there, but ideally we need to bring the public to the point where there is enough demand to warrant the intense and expensive development process needed to produce these products. As we know part of that demand already exists when we consider the sales of Wii systems and memberships in virtual worlds such as either Active Worlds or Second Life. The fact that movie producer, James Cameron, is now taking his Avatar experience to work for NASA indicates that the odds of realizing the VR concepts mentioned above are reasonable and attainable.

The design and development of these systems is not as demanding as those that establish what is known as immersive virtual reality. These are systems where the participants don special helmets and other devices to literally enter a VR world.  They are not in a pseudo-participant mode looking through their computer screens. They are entirely present and on scene.  There are some gaming centers that use immersive VR, and it would be stunning to develop a space exploration system using this model, but it would not be suitable for home or school use. Regardless, this concept could also blossom into a full-fledged public adventure in interactive exploring.

The most common element in all of this is creativity, and that in itself is a vital stimulus that can move humankind both onward and upward. The engineering, programming, and graphic innovations these VR systems demand enriches the entire technology realm. Solutions that are originally designed for a VR system can and will be extended right into real world projects.  Again, James Cameron and his movie, Avatar, bear witness to this eventuality.

The opportunity to carry humankind into the space exploration era through VR experiences is more than exciting, it is an obligation. It is an obligation because we of this century and this generation must begin the process of preparing future generations to go well beyond where humankind has never gone before. With VR it is not a chore, it is a delightful endeavor that lights up all our lives.

See you on Pandora.


Image of the sailing Bark Europa from IAATO Antarctic Expeditions.


August 12, 2010

Asteroid Exploration Mission Concept:There are four governing assumptions for this mission.

  1. The NASA mission to an asteroid will be modified to become an international mission involving at least the European Space Agency (ESA), the Russian space agency (ROSCOSMOS) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), and NASA.  NASA will be the host and lead agency, but all member agencies will take part in all aspects of the mission profile; including exploration goals and parameters.
  2. The mission will utilize a joint astronaut/astrobot team with the astrobot being the exploratory vehicle that is actually launched onto the asteroid.
  3. The selected asteroid will be from three candidates of a grouping of 44 selected by NASA. The three finalist candidate asteroids remain to be selected.
  4. The actual intercept and contact with the selected asteroid will culminate in a docking maneuver that will allow the transfer of the rover onto the asteroid.  No landing operations onto the asteroid are planned.

The Astrobot:

Mars Science Rover - Curiosity

The design of the astrobot will be the joint activity of NASA/JPL and JAXA. JPL’s unique and considerable expertise and experience with the design and operation of the Mars rovercraft makes them the prime design team. Japan’s equally profound design and development experience in robotics makes them an ideal design team member. This arrangement further cements the international theme of this mission.

Although NASA’s new Robonaut concept is an important breakthrough in the linking of robots with astronaut teams, a rover type robotic device similar to the Mars Science Rover, Curiosity,  is considered the better choice for this mission.  In addition to including the majority of the science instrumentation and analyses devices on Curiosity, the Astrobot will have a newly developed direct communications link with its astronaut partner. Additionally the Astrobot will be equipped with deep drilling capabilities and other assessment tools that are specific to the exploration of the asteroid.  The overall international team will make recommendations for the added assessment tools.

The Astrobot will be retrievable. It will not be left behind upon the end of the mission.  Its data analysis and storage systems will differ somewhat, but will also keep the ability to fully send all data should it become impossible to retrieve the rover.  Most importantly, through the interaction of robot and astronaut, the astronaut will have prime mission control over the exploration’s scope. Part of that will depend upon early asteroid terrain assessments, but overall program activity will follow a set research plan developed during mission planning. Astronaut and Astrobot will actually converse during the mission. This will be another significant step forward in the concept of joint astronaut/robot space exploration missions.

Finally, depending upon the actual orbital and rotational behaviors of the asteroid, the spacecraft may undock after transferring the Astrobot onto the asteroid and go into an orbit, if possible.  In this case, the spacecraft will redock with the asteroid to retrieve the rover at the end of the mission. The program; however, anticipates that the spacecraft will remain docked with the asteroid for the duration of the project.


Notes: The complexity of this mission requires that we add two more parts to this blog series. Part IV will present our concept for the spacecraft, the astronaut profile and the mission’s initial launch vehicle. Part V will discuss some of the mission goals and will present our expected benefits from this program.  A full summary of this blog series will also be included in Part V.

Credit: The image of the Mars Science Rover – Curiosity is courtesy of NASA. The image does not depict the final design or configuration of the rover.