August 2nd, 2022

A new era in nuclear energy: US nuclear regulator approves the first modular reactor design

The NuScale SMR design

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has agreed to certify the first small and modular nuclear reactor, paving way for the design to be used in the U.S. This is the seventh nuclear reactor to be certified, the regulator’s press release said, but the first small reactor to have this milestone.

With reducing carbon emissions the priority target for power generation, nuclear energy is poised to make a major comeback. As nations look to secure their energy requirements, nuclear reactors offer a viable option. However, nuclear plants using conventional reactors are not only land intensive but also need investments of time.

Smaller nuclear reactors are being touted as the solution that can address the drawbacks of larger nuclear plants. However, these reactors are still in their design and testing phases and are still significant time away from actual deployment, except for the Oregon-based NuScale Power, whose small and modular reactor will soon be certified.

May 6th, 2022

Mars Colonies Will Need Solar Power—and Nuclear Too


SCIENCE FICTION AUTHORS like Ray Bradbury, Kim Stanley Robinson, Andy Weir, and the creators of The Expanse have long envisioned how people might one day assemble functioning settlements on Mars. Now that NASA and the European Space Agency aim to send astronauts to the Red Planet within the next 20 years, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has talked about sending humans there as well, it’s time to address the practical questions involved in making those visions a reality.

One of the biggest: What’s the most practical way to power future Mars colonies? The seemingly simple question took UC Berkeley engineering students Anthony Abel and Aaron Berliner four years of hard work to figure out.

In findings published last week in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, they and their colleagues argue that both solar and nuclear energy sources can provide enough power for long-term crewed missions—but astronauts will face certain limitations, including how much weighty equipment they can bring from faraway Earth, how much energy solar panels can glean once there, and how well they can store energy for when it’s not so sunny. “It depends where you are on Mars,” Abel says of their results. “Near the equator, solar seems to work better. And near the poles, nuclear works better.”

March 15th, 2022

Astrolab Advances Lunar Mobility with FLEX Rover

Recently tested by retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, the adaptive, multi-use rover can autonomously swap payloads, mobilize astronauts and more, enabling the next generation of planetary exploration and discovery

Venturi Astrolab, Inc. (Astrolab), an emerging aerospace company formed by a team of industry leading planetary rover and robotics experts, announces today the development of the Flexible Logistics and Exploration (FLEX) rover built to enhance Lunar and planetary mobility. Astrolab aims to bring to market a fleet of FLEX rovers to provide the mobility required to support a sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars.

The FLEX rover’s unique commercial potential comes from its novel mobility system architecture, which gives it the ability to pick up and deposit modular payloads in support of robotic science, exploration, logistics, site survey/preparation, construction, resource utilization, and other activities critical to a sustained presence on the Moon and beyond. Built with adaptive utility in mind, FLEX can also serve as an unpressurized rover for a crew of two astronauts, in line with NASA’s Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) requirements.

February 22nd, 2022

Understanding Mars helps rocket cargo on Earth, military official says

Blue Origin’s New Glenn is a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond. It features a reusable first stage built for 25 missions. (Photo: Blue Origin)

Development of spaceships that can operate in the Mars environment is providing lessons for scientists exploring rockets that could deliver cargo across the Earth in an hour, the new head of U.S. Transportation Command recently said.

USTRANSCOM is responsible for surface, maritime and air delivery of equipment and supplies for warfighters using a mix of military assets and industry partners. Rapid advances in technological capabilities are now spurring the military to investigate space transportation as a complementary distribution mode within its supply chain.

The organization in 2020 began executing cooperative research and development agreements with industry and academia to understand use cases, feasibility and cost of hyperfast cargo delivery around the world. In December, Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, entered into an agreement with Transportation Command to explore the possibility of using rockets to transport cargo and people.

February 18th, 2022

Maana Electric’s TerraBox turns sand and electricity into solar panels

Maana Electric’s TerraBox turns sand and electricity into solar panels. Credit: Maana Electric

The Luxembourg-based startup Maana Electric will soon be testing its TerraBox, a fully automated factory the size of several shipping containers that takes sand and produces solar panels. The company aims to send these small warehouse container-like boxes, capable of building solar panels using only electricity and sand as inputs, to the deserts of the Earth, in order to contribute to the fight against climate change.

If all goes according to the plans, the technology could reach the Moon, Mars, and beyond as well to help future space colonies meet their energy needs. The TerraBox fits within shipping containers, allowing the mini-factories to be transported to deserts across the globe and produce clean, renewable energy.

February 14th, 2022

Jared Isaacman, who led the first all-private astronaut mission to orbit, has commissioned 3 more flights from SpaceX

The crew of the next SpaceX private astronaut flight, called Polaris Dawn, pose at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. From left: Anna Menon, who works to develop astronaut operations for SpaceX; Scott Poteet, who served as the mission director of the Inspiration4 mission; Jared Isaacman, who is financing the mission; and Sarah Gillis, lead space operations engineer for SpaceX. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire entrepreneur who led the first all-private-citizen crew to orbit in September, has commissioned three additional spaceflight missions in what amounts to a privately funded space program with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Like NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs at the dawn of the Space Age, the flights — dubbed Polaris, for the North Star — will seek to systematically chart new territory in bold, groundbreaking missions. In doing so, they would dramatically accelerate the progress of commercial spaceflight in what has become a new era of exploration, where private companies — and people — are claiming the rarefied territory that was once the exclusive domain of governments.

The first flight, which could come by the end of the year, will aim to send a crew of four farther than any other human spaceflight in 50 years and feature the first private-citizen spacewalk, Isaacman said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post. The second flight also would be aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the vehicle that NASA now relies on to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

The third flight in the series, however, would be the first crewed mission of the next-generation Starship spacecraft, now under development by SpaceX and which NASA intends to use to land astronauts on the moon.

February 10th, 2022

How to watch Elon Musk’s Starship presentation live

SpaceX stacking its Starship spacecraft on top of a Super Heavy booster at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX

This evening, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will give a presentation about his company’s next generation Starship system — a massive new rocket that SpaceX has been developing over the last few years to take humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. It’ll be Musk’s first presentation on the vehicle since 2019 and his fifth one overall since 2016.

Starship is by far SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date. The design calls for a giant spaceship and rocket combo that would be more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon. Starship, the passenger part of the vehicle, is meant to launch to space on top of a gargantuan booster rocket known as the Super Heavy. Starship is supposed to be capable of landing on the surface of the Moon and back on Earth, while Super Heavy is also meant to land itself back on Earth, making the entire system reusable.

Scheduled start time: New York: 9PM / San Francisco: 6PM / London: 2AM / Berlin: 3AM / Moscow: 5AM / New Delhi: 7:30AM / Beijing: 10AM / Tokyo: 11AM / Melbourne: 1PM

February 9th, 2022

NASA Wants To Bring Pieces Of Mars Down to Earth

Illustration: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

Space may be the final frontier, but over the past few decades scientists have started to encroach on its territory. They’ve sent rover after rover to Mars, each one built to examine the planet’s surface for valuable information about its composition and history. But there’s only so much testing equipment that you can fit on a rover, let alone design with the durability to land, completely functional, on another planet. That’s why NASA is trying a new method: Bringing Martian rocks back to Earth.

The concept for returning Martian samples to Earth for terrestrial study isn’t a new one. The Mars Sample Return Mission has been in its “conceptual phase” for years, while scientists designed a methodology for getting rockets both to and from the red planet. Now, however, NASA has taken a new step towards getting the mission off the ground by bringing on Lockeed Martin to construct real life rockets.

February 8th, 2022

Riding a laser to Mars

Laser-thermal propelled spacecraft in Earth orbit awaiting its departure. Credit: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Could a laser send a spacecraft to Mars? That’s a proposed mission from a group at McGill University, designed to meet a solicitation from NASA. The laser, a 10-meter wide array on Earth, would heat hydrogen plasma in a chamber behind the spacecraft, producing thrust from hydrogen gas and sending it to Mars in only 45 days. There, it would aerobrake in Mars’ atmosphere, shuttling supplies to human colonists or, someday perhaps, even humans themselves.

McGill’s concept, called laser-thermal propulsion, relies on an array of infrared lasers based on Earth, 10 meters in diameter, combining many invisible infrared beams, each with a wavelength of about one micron, for a powerful total of 100 megawatts—the electric power required for about 80,000 U.S. households. The payload, orbiting in an elliptical medium Earth orbit, would have a reflector that directs the laser beam coming from Earth into a heating chamber containing a hydrogen plasma. With its core then heated as high as 40,000 degrees Kelvin (72,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hydrogen gas flowing around the core would reach 10,000 K (18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and be expelled out a nozzle, creating thrust to propel the ship away from Earth over an interval of 58 minutes. (Side thrusters would keep the craft aligned with the laser’s beam as Earth rotates.)

When the beaming stops, the payload zips away at a velocity of almost 17 kilometers per second relative to Earth—fast enough to go past the moon’s orbital distance in a mere eight hours.

February 3rd, 2022

Mars Curiosity rover’s wheels look all beat up, but NASA isn’t fretting

Curiosity’s MAHLI camera snapped this view of one of the rover’s wheels in late January 2022.


Just like I inspect the bottom of my hiking boots from time to time, NASA’s Curiosity rover schedules in regular check-ups of its wheel treads. Mars hasn’t been kind to the rover’s aluminum wheels, which have taken a serious beating from rocks since it started exploring Gale Crater in 2012.

Curiosity snapped some fresh looks at its kicks in late January, and the views led to some concerned social media discussions (and some humorous ones) about the state of the wheels and what it means for the rover’s ability to rove. Good news: Curiosity is doing OK.

The wheel image that attracted the most attention is quite a looker. It shows multiple holes and broken grousers (raised treads), cracks and bent metal. If your car tire looked like that, you’d be breaking out the jack and the spare. But the wheel issues have been known for a long time and the Curiosity team already implemented mitigation measures to extend their life.