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NASA’s NIAC Program Gives a Sneak Peek at the Future of Space Travel

NASA’s NIAC Program Gives a Sneak Peek at the Future of Space Travel

From Star Trek–like medical scanners to concepts for off-planet agriculture like in The Expanse, science fiction has often inspired actual research at NASA and other space agencies. This week, researchers are meeting at a virtual conference for the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to brainstorm and investigate sci-fi-like ideas, some of which may very well shape the missions of the next 20 years.

A drone helicopter hopping about a Martian crater or a lunar rover that maps moon ice might have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but the copter actually flew earlier this year, and the rover is in the planning stages. Now the conference organizers have solicited proposals for more exploratory projects, a few of which the agency might eventually fund. “We invest in long-term, far-out technologies, and most of them probably won’t work. The ones that do might change everything. It’s high risk, high payoff, almost like a venture capital investment portfolio,” says Jason Derleth, the NIAC program executive.

The program isn’t focused on incremental developments but instead seeks game-changing technologies, ones that are 10 times better than the state of the art, Derleth says. He likens it to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which also explores extremely speculative concepts but developed the precursor to the modern internet, among other innovations.

The annual conference, which continues through Thursday, September 23, is publicly viewable on NIAC’s livestream. Some of the proposals discussed so far—such as for new ways to launch foldable space stations or astronaut habitats, or to extract resources from other worlds—revolve around the understanding that, for lengthy space voyages, you have to make the most of every rocket launch.

The next generation of space travelers will need resources for survival, for protective structures, and to fuel the journey further or return home. “This leaves us with two options: Take everything with us, like if you were going on a hiking trip in the desert. Or find new and creative ways to use whatever is already there,” says Amelia Greig, an aerospace engineer at University of Texas at El Paso, who presented at the conference on Tuesday.

To aid creative reuse of lunar resources, Greig and her colleagues propose a technology called ablative arc mining, which would slurp up water ice and the kinds of metals that could be used as building materials. “It’s like using controlled lightning bolts to mine the moon,” she said during her presentation. Her concept describes a van-sized moon crawler—named after the Jawa sandcrawlers of Star Wars—that picks a spot, and then places a ringed device that it carries on its front end parallel to the ground. Electric arcs zap across the ring, which can be made as large as a meter in diameter, ripping particles from the moon’s surface. Those particles, now charged, can then be moved and sorted by the machine’s electromagnetic fields. That way, rather than scoping just one resource, a single piece of equipment could fill one container with water, another with oxygen attached to other elements, and others with silicon, aluminum, or other metal particles.

render of lunarscape

An artistic representation of the ablative arc mining system deployed into a crater near the lunar south pole.

Illustration: Janet Hill/Creative Studios/The Center for Faculty Leadership and Development/UTEP

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Returns After 3 Days in Orbit

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Returns After 3 Days in Orbit

After spending three days about 360 miles above the ground, the all-civilian crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 have returned to Earth. Their Crew Dragon capsule slowed down to 15 miles per hour as it descended under four parachutes and splashed down at 7:07 pm Eastern off the Atlantic coast of Florida, not far from where they launched on Wednesday evening.

“Welcome home to planet Earth. Your mission has shown the world that space is for all of us and that everyday people can make extraordinary impacts in the world around them,” came the voice of SpaceX quality engineer Andy Tran, who was one of the hosts of the company’s livestream from mission control in Hawthorne, California. 

“Thank you so much SpaceX, it was a heck of a ride for us,” replied the voice of commander Jared Isaacman. “We’re just getting started!”

“Copy just getting started,” returned Tran.

Their landing spot depended on weather and ocean conditions, which cooperated with their plans: The sky was clear of storms and the water wasn’t choppy. SpaceX also coordinated with the Coast Guard to ensure safety in the area and to discourage boaters from entering the splashdown zone, as they did last year when two American astronauts splashed down in a SpaceX capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX personnel quickly approached the Inspiration4 capsule aboard small boats in order to extract the astronauts and bring them to dry land. The recovery process is expected to take about an hour. From there, the crew will undergo some medical evaluations, head to a private party, and then finally they’ll return home.

“This is the beginning of the private space tourism industry, beyond the suborbital stuff we saw this summer. It’s not like five minutes, a little moment of microgravity, and it’s over. This is much more what the public understands as space tourism,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.

The Dragon’s manifest includes paying customer Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the payment processing company Shift4Payments, and three people whose tickets he sponsored: Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and artist; Chris Sembroski, an aeronautical engineer; and Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant. Proctor is the fourth African-American woman to go to space, and Arceneaux made history as the first space traveler with a prosthetic body part. She’s a bone cancer survivor and once was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis, Tennessee nonprofit for which the Inspiration4 team aims to raise at least $200 million, a goal they have already nearly reached.

Although Dragon flies autonomously, both Proctor and Isaacman, who aren’t professional astronauts, nonetheless have training that would have allowed them to pilot the capsule if necessary. The crew kept busy while orbiting the Earth 15 times a day: Isaacman kept track of the spacecraft’s systems and kept in touch with mission control. Arceneaux conducted medical research on the health effects of space radiation and of extremely low levels of gravity, which can have effects on vision. In collaboration with researchers on the ground at Baylor College and Cornell University, the crew members collected biological samples and biomedical data from each other during the flight, monitoring their heart rates, blood oxygen saturation, and sleep, among other things. Arceneaux also imaged her crewmates’ eyes and other organs using a handheld ultrasound scanner called the Butterfly IQ+, an artificial intelligence-enabled device that is also being tested on the International Space Station.

Proctor brought on board pens, ink, markers, and watercolor paint, although she wasn’t sure how well they’d work in a near-zero-gravity environment. She focused on her metallic markers to make artwork on the second day of their flight. “Here’s my rendition of the Dragon capsule being carried by a dragon off the Earth,” Proctor said, holding up her drawing during a live on-orbit update on Friday.

How to Watch the SpaceX Inspiration4 Launch

How to Watch the SpaceX Inspiration4 Launch

On the Florida coast, at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the SpaceX team is readying the historic Inspiration4 mission for liftoff. It will be the first all-private, all-civilian spaceflight into orbit. The four crew members—Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski, and Hayley Arceneaux—have trained intensely for this day, although none of them are professional astronauts. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon craft has previously ferried NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but everyone aboard this flight is traveling as a guest of Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of Shift4Payments, who paid for all four seats and played a part in selecting the other passengers through a series of contests. (You can read more about the selection process and the mission here.)

The Inspiration4 crew have a five-hour launch window that opens at 8:02 pm Eastern on Wednesday night. If the weather cooperates and all systems are go, the team will blast off on their Falcon 9 rocket, and in a little more than eight minutes their space capsule will be propelled into orbit. They’ll fly about six times higher than Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos did during their edge-of-space jaunts earlier this summer, and stay in orbit for approximately three days.

As early as Saturday evening, the Dragon spacecraft will descend toward Earth and splash down at one of several possible landing sites off the Florida coast, where a SpaceX team will be waiting for them, ready to take the new astronauts ashore.

How to Watch

SpaceX’s webcast of the launch will go live at about 4 pm Eastern time on Wednesday, September 15, about four hours before the launch window opens. SpaceX’s preview coverage will include features on the crew and their lead-up activities. You can stream it below or on the SpaceX website.

Weather condition forecasts have recently been upgraded from 70 percent to 90 percent favorable, so a launch tonight seems likely. But if they have to scrub tonight’s attempt, they’ll try again tomorrow. Their backup five-hour launch window starts Thursday, September 16, at 8:05 pm Eastern.

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Why Perseverance’s First Mars Drilling Attempt Came Up Empty

Why Perseverance’s First Mars Drilling Attempt Came Up Empty

Last week, NASA’s Perseverance rover shot for a new milestone in the search for extraterrestrial life: Drilling into Mars to extract a plug of rock, which will eventually get fired back to Earth for scientists to study. Data sent to NASA scientists early on August 6 indicated a victory—the robot had indeed drilled into the Red Planet, and a photo even showed a dust pile around the borehole.

“What followed later in the morning was a rollercoaster of emotions,” wrote Louise Jandura, chief engineer for sampling and caching at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a blog post yesterday describing the attempt. While data indicated that Perseverance had transferred a sample tube into its belly for storage, that tube was in fact empty. “It took a few minutes for this reality to sink in but the team quickly transitioned to investigation mode,” Jandura wrote. “It is what we do. It is the basis of science and engineering.”

By now, the team has a few indications of what went wrong in what Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist of the Mars 2020 mission, calls “the case of the missing core.”

“We’ve successfully demonstrated the sample caching process, yet we have a tube with no core in it,” she says. “How could it be possible that we have carried out all of these steps perfectly and successfully, yet there is no rock—and no anything—in the tube?”

One theory, of course, was that the rover had simply dropped the core sample. But there were no broken pieces on the surface. Also, Stack Morgan says, the tube was “very clean, not even dusty, suggesting that there was perhaps nothing that had ever gotten into the tube.”

NASA scientists now think that the core was actually pulverized in the drilling process, then scattered around the borehole. “That would explain why we don’t see any pieces in the hole and why we don’t see any pieces on the ground, because they have basically become part of the cutting,” says Stack Morgan. “So we started to think about why that happened, because that is not a behavior that the engineers saw in the very extensive test set of rocks that they cored prior to launch.”

Perseverance is drilling in Jezero Crater, which used to cradle a lake, and therefore may have been home to ancient microbial life. (It’s been relying on the Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, to scout ahead for spots to dig.) By digging into the rock instead of just sampling dust at the surface, the rover will provide vital clues about the geological history of the planet. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, also drilled, but it was designed to grind the rock instead of extracting cores. This time, NASA engineers want samples that let them observe the rock as it was laid down so they can analyze it for hallmarks of life—some microbes, for instance, leave behind characteristic minerals.

For Perseverance, the drilling process actually begins inside the rover, in a section called the adaptive caching assembly. Here, a robotic arm takes a tube out of storage and inserts it into the “bit carousel,” a storage container for all of Perseverance’s coring bits. The carousel then rotates, presenting the tube—which is about the same shape and size as a laboratory test tube—to the 7-foot-long arm that’ll actually do the drilling. “We pick up that coring bit, and that has the tube inside,” said Jessica Samuels, surface mission manager for Perseverance, in an interview before the first drilling attempt. “And now at that time we’re ready to actually acquire the sample.”

Scientists Just ‘Looked’ Inside Mars. Here’s What They Found

Scientists Just ‘Looked’ Inside Mars. Here’s What They Found

The researchers found the core density to be surprisingly low, at only about 6 grams per cubic centimeter, which is much lower than what they’d expected of an iron-rich center. “It’s still a bit of a mystery how the core is so light,” Stähler says. There must be lighter elements present, though exactly what those may be is unclear. He and his team eventually hope to detect P-waves produced by a marsquake originating directly across the planet from where InSight is parked. Since they can pierce through the core-mantle boundary, they will carry information about the core’s composition to the lander’s receiver. But for that to happen, Stähler says, “Mars has to play along and give us this one quake on the other side of the planet.”

In Stähler’s team’s paper, they report a core radius of 1,830 kilometers. Another team, led by ETH Zürich geophysicist Amir Khan, found that this size is so large it leaves little room for an Earth-like lower mantle, a layer that acts as a heat-trapping blanket around the core. Earth’s mantle is divided into two parts, with a so-called transition zone in between; the upper and lower levels are composed of different minerals. “The mantle of Mars is—can I say flippantly—a slightly simpler version of the mantle of Earth, simply in terms of the mineralogy,” says Khan, lead author on the paper describing the mantle.

Previous estimates of the core’s radius using geochemical and geophysical data hinted at the absence of a lower mantle, but scientists needed InSight’s seismological readings to confirm it. Without this layer, the Martian core likely cooled much more readily than Earth’s. This is key to understanding the evolution of the Red Planet, and in particular why it lost its magnetic field, a barrier that would have protected the atmosphere—and potential life—from harsh solar winds. Creating a magnetic field requires a temperature gradient between the outer and inner core, high enough to create circulating currents that churn the core’s liquid and give rise to a magnetic field. But the core cooled so fast that these convection currents died out.

Khan’s analysis also shows that Mars has a thick lithosphere, the rigid and cold part of the mantle. This might be a clue as to why the Red Planet doesn’t have the plate tectonics that drive the frenzy of volcanism on Earth. “If you have a very thick lithosphere, it’s going to be very difficult to break this thing up and create the exact equivalent of plate tectonics on Earth,” says Khan. “Maybe Mars had it very early on, but it’s certainly shut down now.”

While InSight eavesdrops on the interior vibrations of Mars, Perseverance has been rolling around its dusty surface looking for signs of ancient life in the rocks, scoping out places to collect regolith samples, and learning about Jezero’s geological history. “Exploration is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of science, who opened the press conference on Wednesday that highlighted early advances from the rover’s first few months in its new home. “Perseverance is one step in a long legacy of carefully planned Mars exploration that links robotic and human exploration for the time to come.”

The scientists at the press briefing laid out what Perseverance has been up to on its road trip so far. “The challenge is figuring out exactly where we want to go and how we’re going to fit everything into our schedule,” said Vivian Sun, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sun said they decided to detour Perseverance about 3,000 feet south of its landing site to extract its first rock samples, which will be stored in the belly of the rover and later cached on the planet’s surface for a future return mission that will ferry them to Earth.