April 2nd, 2019

Latest Updates from NASA on 3D-Printed Habitat Competition

Team SEArch+/Apis Cor won first place in the Phase 3: Level 4 software modeling stage of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. The unique shape of their habitat allows for continuous reinforcement of the structure. Light enters through trough-shaped ports on the sides and top.
Credits: Team SEArch+/Apis Cor

The 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is a competition to create sustainable shelters suitable for the Moon, Mars or beyond using resources available on-site in these locations. The multi-level 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge puts teams to the test in several areas of 3D-printing, including modeling software, material development and construction. In addition to aiding human space exploration, technologies sought from this competition could also lead to lower-cost housing solutions on Earth and other benefits.

Teams competing in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge completed the latest level of the competition – complete virtual construction – and the top three were awarded a share of the $100,000 prize purse. This stage of the challenge required teams to create a full-scale habitat design, using modeling software. This level built upon an earlier stage that also required virtual modeling.

Eleven team entries were scored and awarded points based on architectural layout, programming, efficient use of interior space, and the 3D-printing scalability and constructability of the habitat. Teams also prepared short videos providing insight into their designs as well as miniature 3D-printed models that came apart to showcase the interior design. Points were also awarded for aesthetic representation and realism. After evaluation by a panel of judges, NASA and challenge partner Bradley University of Peoria, Illinois, awarded the following teams:

1. SEArch+/Apis Cor – New York – $33,954.11
2. Zopherus – Rogers, Arkansas – $33,422.01
3. Mars Incubator – New Haven, Connecticut – $32,623.88

The 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge will culminate with a head-to-head subscale structure print May 1-4, 2019, and the awarding of an $800,000 prize purse. Media and the public will be invited to attend the event in Peoria, Illinois.

March 29th, 2019

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Completes Flight Tests

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the flight model (the actual vehicle going to the Red Planet), inside the Space Simulator, a 25-foot-wide (7.62-meter-wide) vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 1, 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since the Wright brothers first took to the skies of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Dec. 17, 1903, first flights have been important milestones in the life of any vehicle designed for air travel. After all, it’s one thing to design an aircraft and make it fly on paper – or computer. It is quite another to put all the pieces together and watch them get off the ground.

In late January 2019, all the pieces making up the flight model (actual vehicle going to the Red Planet) of NASA’s Mars Helicopter were put to the test.

Weighing in at no more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms), the helicopter is a technology demonstration project currently going through the rigorous verification process certifying it for Mars.

The majority of the testing the flight model is going through had to do with demonstrating how it can operate on Mars, including how it performs at Mars-like temperatures. Can the helicopter survive – and function – in cold temperatures, including nights with temperatures as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius)?

All this testing is geared towards February 2021, when the helicopter will reach the surface of the Red Planet, firmly nestled under the belly of the Mars 2020 rover. A few months later, it will be deployed and test flights (up to 90 seconds long) will begin – the first from the surface of another world.

March 22nd, 2019

NASA films fascinating SpaceX Falcon 9 reentry, paving way for Mars missions

As NASA eyes future missions to Mars, it needs to accumulate data on how large-payload rockets behave in atmospheric reentry conditions. A recent collaboration between NASA and SpaceX allowed the space agency to capture some unique data on the reentry of a large rocket under Mars-like conditions in the upper atmosphere. Thermal video of the event is not only full of useful scientific data, it’s cool to watch.

The video follows the path of the Falcon 9 first stage, which is the largest section of the rocket. It’s what launches the payload from the launch pad and takes it most of the way into orbit. After the second stage separates to complete the job, the first stage is either discarded, or recovered. Perfecting a method of landing and recovering the first stage is what SpaceX is working on right now (the Falcon 9R).

The Falcon 9 is a perfect vehicle to provide this sort of reentry data because its first stage is capable of powered descent. Specifically, part of the return procedure is firing the rocket engines in retrograde, or in the direction of travel. NASA calls this supersonic retro-propulsion. This is the part of landing where the rocket slows its descent, and would be an important component of future Mars missions, both manned and unmanned.

March 18th, 2019

Is the best way to communicate with future astronauts on Mars by texting?

Shannon Kobs Nawotniak

Texting may be one of the best ways to communicate with future astronauts on Mars and other planets.

This is one of the conclusions of a study published by Idaho State University geosciences Associate Professor Shannon Kobs Nawotniak in a special collection edition of the journal Astrobiology that was published March.

The article she was the main author on was titled “Opportunities and Challenges of Promoting Scientific Dialog throughout Execution of Future Science-Driven Extravehicular Activity.” In this article Nawotniak compared communicating through voice, video, still images, text messaging and other methods.

“Text-based communication is far preferable to audio transmission over latency [the time delay caused by the distance between the planets], allowing message recipients to prioritize their own tasks in the moment and maintain a written record of communication for review throughout the EVA (extravehicular activity or “spacewalk”) as desired,” she said in the article.

Texting has several other advantages and could be used in conjunction with other communication methods.

March 12th, 2019

94-year old Lithium-Ion battery inventor unveils new ultra-efficient glass battery

John Goodenough, co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery

John B. Goodenough, an emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, pioneered the lithium-ion battery technology that is now the industry standard, and now the 94-year-old is ready to push the envelope on battery innovation again. Goodenough along with senior research fellow Maria Helena Braga, lead a team of researchers who have developed a low-cost all-solid-state battery that is safer and more efficient than existing lithium-ion technology.

The new battery uses a sodium- or lithium-coated glass electrolyte that has triple the storage capacity of a lithium ion battery. It also charges in minutes instead of hours and operates in both frigid and hot weather (from -20 to 60 degrees centigrade). Early tests suggest the battery is capable of at least 1,200 charge-discharge cycles, significantly more charging cycles than a comparable lithium-ion battery, and best of all, the glass-based electrolyte will not form the dendrites that plague lithium-ion battery technology. The dendrites accumulate as part of the standard charging and recharging cycle and eventually cause a short circuit that often results in a smoldering or burning battery.

February 25th, 2019

Elon Musk: This Is How We’ll Build a Base on Mars


In January, [Popular Mechanics] ran an exclusive interview with Elon Musk in which he explained, for the first time, his full thinking—and the complex engineering questions—behind his decision to construct SpaceX’s Starship rocket and booster with stainless steel. The previous design for the rocket (which was then known as the BFR) had called for carbon fiber, but Musk recalculated and went with steel due to its durability, cost-effectiveness, and ductility.

Here, in a continuation of that interview, Musk goes deep on what it takes to actually travel beyond orbit and into space. Also, it sounds like Mars will have a nice park.

February 18th, 2019

Artificial intelligence — and a few jokes — will help keep future Mars crews sane

The crew of the fictional Daedalus spaceship touches down on the Red Planet in “Mars,” a National Geographic miniseries that delves into the dynamics of future Mars crews. (Credit: National Geographic Channels)

When the first human explorers head for Mars, they’re likely to have a non-human judging their performance and tweaking their interpersonal relationships when necessary.

NASA and outside researchers are already working on artificial intelligence agents to monitor how future long-duration space crews interact, sort of like the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager.” But there’ll also be a need for the human touch — in the form of crew members who could serve the roles of social directors or easygoing jokesters.

That’s the upshot of research initiatives discussed over the weekend here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Using AI to assess astronauts’ mental state is the focus of a NASA program known as Human Capabilities Assessments for Autonomous Missions, or H-CAAM, said Tom Williams, a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who concentrates on human factors and performance for the space agency’s Human Research Program.

The aim is to develop an autonomous system that could assist the crew if it noticed that their performance wasn’t up to par.

“If they’re hit with radiation … a system onboard that’s monitoring their performance offers an assist, just like a driver assist on a car, alerting you that, ‘Hey, your performance on this task is not within the parameter of what we would expect. Do you need assistance?’ ” Williams said. “Or do we need to take over if it drops below a certain threshold that the crew member has worked on and selected?”

NASA psychiatrists currently check in with crew members on the International Space Station during private consultations that take place every couple of weeks, but that kind of real-time, face-to-face check-in will be harder to manage during Mars mission, when delays in two-way communications could add up to as much as 48 minutes. Having an AI system aboard the spaceship could provide more of a real-time backstop.

The system draws upon research being conducted at Johnson Space Center’s Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA.

February 8th, 2019

NASA’s first interplanetary CubeSats fall silent beyond Mars

After a successful mission that pushed the limits of small satellite technology, ground controllers have lost contact with two briefcase-sized CubeSats beyond Mars, NASA said Tuesday.

The pioneering Mars Cube One, or MarCO, mission set records for the farthest distance CubeSats have ever operated, accompanying NASA’s InSight lander to Mars after a May 5 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin MarCO spacecraft relayed telemetry from InSight as it entered the Martian atmosphere Nov. 26 and successfully landed on the Red Planet, giving engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California updates on the lander’s progress. albeit with an eight-minute delay due to the time it took radio signals to travel the 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Mars to Earth.

InSight could have succeeded without MarCO, but engineers would have had to wait hours to receive confirmation of the landing.

But MarCO was conceived primarily as an experimental mission to prove that CubeSats, with some modifications, could withstand the perils of deep space travel. CubeSats are much less expensive than larger satellites, and can cost less than $1 million to design and build for missions in Earth orbit.

The Mars Cube One mission cost $18.5 million, once engineers at JPL outfitted the satellites with a new type of radio, innovative antennas, a cold gas propulsion system, and other custom features needed for interplanetary spaceflight.

That’s still a fraction of the InSight mission’s $993 million cost.

February 6th, 2019

Motors on Mars: The technology being sent to explore Mars

Artist’s impression of the Mars helicopter

The US space agency, NASA, has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds to send the first aerial images (not taken by a satellite) of Mars back to Earth.

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to conditions on Earth at an altitude of 30km. Also, taking the reduced Martian gravity into account, the helicopter needs to be very light (1.8kg) and can only carry small batteries.

The components used therefore must be extremely energy-efficient. Six of maxon motors’ 10mm diameter DCX precision micro motors, which have been used in previous Mars missions, will be used to move the swashplate, adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, to control the vehicle.

The propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment, working closely with maxon engineers, under contract from JPL.

“Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud,” says Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.

January 31st, 2019

‘Mars Buggy’ Curiosity Measures a Mountain’s Gravity

Side-by-side images depict NASA’s Curiosity rover (illustration at left) and a moon buggy driven during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Apollo 17 astronauts drove a moon buggy across the lunar surface in 1972, measuring gravity with a special instrument. There are no astronauts on Mars, but a group of clever researchers realized they havejust the tools for similar experiments with the Martian buggy they’re operating.

In a new paper in Science, the researchers detail how they repurposed sensors used to drive the Curiosity rover and turned them into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. That enabled them to measure the subtle tug from rock layers on lower Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater and which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. The results? It turns out the density of those rock layers is much lower than expected.

Just like a smartphone, Curiosity carries accelerometers and gyroscopes. Moving your smartphone allows these sensors to determine its location and which way it’s facing. Curiosity’s sensors do the same thing but with far more precision, playing a crucial role in navigating the Martian surface on each drive. Knowing the rover’s orientation also lets engineers accurately point its instruments and multidirectional, high-gain antenna.

By happy coincidence, the rover’s accelerometers can be used like Apollo 17’s gravimeter. The accelerometers detect the gravity of the planet whenever the rover stands still. Using engineering data from the first five years of the mission, the paper’s authors measured the gravitational tug of Mars on the rover. As Curiosity ascends Mount Sharp, the mountain adds additional gravity – but not as much as scientists expected.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”