Category: Space & Physics

How the Elements Got Their Names

By Mark Lorch, University of Hull | June 9, 2016 9:42 am
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(Credit: Antoine2K/Shutterstock)

The seventh row of the periodic table is complete, resplendent with four new names for the elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (the organization charged with naming the elements) has suggested these should be called nihonium (Nh); moscovium (Mv); tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) and is expected to confirm the proposal in November.

The three former elements are named after the regions where they were discovered (and Nihonium references Nihon the Japanese name for Japan). And “oganesson” is named after the Russian-American physicist Yuri Oganessian, who helped discover them. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

In Memory of the Spirit Rover

By Korey Haynes | May 26, 2016 3:04 pm
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The Spirit rover explored the Red Planet for more than five years, well past its original mission lifetime. (Credit: NASA)

Five years ago, NASA officially ceased recovery efforts for the Spirit rover. They didn’t give up without a fight. The rover had been silent since March of 2010, more than a year earlier, and stationary since 2009, when it drove into a patch of soft martian soil.

With Spirit’s twin rover, Opportunity, driving merrily along to this day (though not without signs of aging), it’s tempting, in hindsight, to consider Spirit the disappointing sibling. Certainly it’s difficult not to dream about the wealth of images and data Spirit might have returned had it not become mired in a soft patch of martian soil.

But we would be ungrateful not to look back on what was still a spectacular science mission lifetime for Spirit. Let’s re-live some highlights.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

The First Moon Base Will Be Printed

By Morgan Saletta, University of Melbourne | May 17, 2016 1:59 pm
3-D printers building a moon base from materials harvested from the lunar surface.

3D Printers would scoop material from the lunar surface into bins and spit it out as building material. (Credit: Contour Crafting)

Planetary Resources, a company hoping to make asteroid mining into a trillion dollar industry, earlier this year unveiled the world’s first 3D printed object made from bits of an asteroid.

3D printing, and additive manufacturing processes more generally, have made many advances in recent years. Just a few years ago, most 3D printing was only used for building prototypes, which would then go on to be manufactured via conventional processes. But it’s now increasingly being used for manufacturing in its own right.

Nearly two years ago, NASA even sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station with the goal of testing how the technology works in micro-gravity. While the printer resembles a Star Trek replicator, it’s not quite that sophisticated yet; the objects it can print are small prototypes for testing.

The 3D printer used in the ISS. (Credit: Made In Space)

But 3D printed objects don’t have to be small. Entire houses have now been 3D printed, including out of renewable resources such as clay and earth.

And visionary architect Enrico Dini, a pioneer of 3D construction featured in the film The Man Who Prints Houses, isn’t thinking small, confessing:

What I really want to do is to use the machine to complete the Sagrada Familia. And to build on the moon.

Above and Beyond

NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and entrepreneurs aiming to jump-start human colonization of space see the 3D printing of large scale objects, including entire habitations, as a major enabling technology for the future of space exploration.

In 2013, a project led by the ESA used simulated lunar regolith – i.e. loose top soil – to produce a 1.5-ton hollow cell building block. It was conceived as part of a dome shelter for a lunar base that would also incorporate an inflatable interior structure. The project used a D-Shape printer using Enrico Dini’s company, Monolite.

The 1.5-ton building block produced as a demonstration. (Credit: ESA)

Since 2011, NASA has been funding similar research led by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevies at the University of Southern California. His team has been using a technology called contour crafting, which also has the goal of using 3D printing to construct entire space habitations from in situ resources.

After testing 3D printing in space, NASA has decided the technology is close to a tipping point. As part of a new program of public/private partnerships aimed at pushing emerging space capabilities over these tipping points, NASA has awarded a major contract to the Archinaut project.

Multi-dome lunar base being constructed, based on the 3D printing concept. Once assembled, the inflated domes are covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith by robots to help protect the occupants against space radiation and micrometeoroids. (Credit: ESA)

The project will see a 3D printer, built by Made in Space, mated with a robotic arm, built by Oceaneering Space Systems, with Northrup Grumman providing the control software and integration with the ISS systems.

The goal of the project is to provide an on-orbit demonstration of large, complex structure – in this case a boom for a satellite – sometime in 2018.

Archinaut is a technology platform that enables autonomous manufacture and assembly of spacecraft systems on orbit. (Credit: Made In Space)

Down to Earth

But 3D manufacturing is already changing the aerospace industry. Composites, for example, have become a commonly used material for a wide variety of applications.

But composites tend to suffer weakness between their laminating layers, which can lead to material failures in crucial components. 3D weaving, which deploys fibers on three axes, is set to revolutionize these materials and their performances.

Indeed, NASA is now using 3D woven quartz fiber compression pads for its Orion Space Vehicle and exploring the technology for use in other thermal protection surfaces.

But the ability to use in situ materials, both for fuel, water and construction whether on the moon, Mars, or asteroids has long been recognized as a crucial ability to enable human exploration of the solar system.

Contests such as last the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, are an important element of an innovation strategy designed to push the envelope of technology, leveraging entrepreneurial spirit, scientific and technological know-how and design thinking in a bid to take human space exploration to the next level.

Mars Ice House cross section. (Credit: Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds AO)

The winning design, announced at the New York Makers Faire in September, was the Mars Ice House.

The Mars Ice House Habitat, which would be printed out of ice from relatively abundant water on Mars’ northern hemisphere, is a far cry from the bunker-like spaces frequently envisioned for Mars bases. The ice would provide ample radiation protection while creating a radiant, light filled space reminiscent of a cathedral.

Space exploration has always been associated with visionary fiction and grandiose plans, and it looks like 3D manufacturing and construction may finally bring the printed word to life.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, Top Posts

If There’s Life on Mars, How Should We Treat It?

By Kelly Smith, Clemson University | May 12, 2016 11:19 am
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NASA’s Curiosity rover captured this image of the Kimberley formation on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s chief scientist recently announced that “…we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” Such a discovery would clearly rank as one of the most important in human history and immediately open up a series of complex social and moral questions. One of the most profound concerns is about the moral status of extraterrestrial life forms. Since humanities scholars are only just now beginning to think critically about these kinds of post-contact questions, naïve positions are common.

Take Martian life: we don’t know if there is life on Mars, but if it exists, it’s almost certainly microbial and clinging to a precarious existence in subsurface aquifers. It may or may not represent an independent origin – life could have emerged first on Mars and been exported to Earth. But whatever its exact status, the prospect of life on Mars has tempted some scientists to venture out onto moral limbs. Of particular interest is a position I label “Mariomania.”

Should We Quarantine Mars?

Mariomania can be traced back to Carl Sagan, who famously proclaimed

If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.

Chris McKay, one of NASA’s foremost Mars experts, goes even further to argue that we have an obligation to actively assist Martian life, so that it does not only survives, but flourishes:

…Martian life has rights. It has the right to continue its existence even if its extinction would benefit the biota of Earth. Furthermore, its rights confer upon us the obligation to assist it in obtaining global diversity and stability.

To many people, this position seems noble because it calls for human sacrifice in the service of a moral ideal. But in reality, the Mariomaniac position is far too sweeping to be defensible on either practical or moral grounds.

Streaks down Martian mountains are evidence of liquid water running downhill – and hint at the possibility of life on the planet. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

A Moral Hierarchy: Earthlings before Martians?

Suppose in the future we find that:

  1. There is (only) microbial life on Mars.
  2. We have long studied this life, answering our most pressing scientific questions.
  3. It has become feasible to intervene on Mars in some way (for instance, by terraforming or strip mining) that would significantly harm or even destroy the microbes, but would also be of major benefit to humanity.

Mariomaniacs would no doubt rally in opposition to any such intervention under their “Mars for the Martians” banners. From a purely practical point of view, this probably means that we should not explore Mars at all, since it is not possible to do so without a real risk of contamination.

Beyond practicality, a theoretical argument can be made that opposition to intervention might itself be immoral:

  • Humans beings have an especially high (if not necessarily unique) moral value and thus we have an unambiguous obligation to serve human interests.
  • It is unclear if Martian microbes have moral value at all (at least independent of their usefulness to people). Even if they do, it’s certainly much less than that of human beings.
  • Interventions on Mars could be of enormous benefit to humankind (for instance, creating a “second Earth”).
  • Therefore: we should of course seek compromise where possible, but to the extent that we are forced to choose whose interests to maximize, we are morally obliged to err on the side of humans.

Obviously, there are a great many subtleties I don’t consider here. For example, many ethicists question whether human beings always have higher moral value than other life forms. Animal rights activists argue that we should accord real moral value to other animals because, like human beings, they possess morally relevant characteristics (for instance, the ability to feel pleasure and pain). But very few thoughtful commentators would conclude that, if we are forced to choose between saving an animal and saving a human, we should flip a coin.

Simplistic claims of moral equality are another example of overgeneralizing a moral principle for rhetorical effect. Whatever one thinks about animal rights, the idea that the moral status of humans should trump that of microbes is about as close to a slam dunk as it gets in moral theory.

On the other hand, we need to be careful since my argument merely establishes that there can be excellent moral reasons for overriding the “interests” of Martian microbes in some circumstances. There will always be those who want to use this kind of reasoning to justify all manner of human-serving but immoral actions. The argument I outline does not establish that anyone should be allowed to do anything they want to Mars for any reason. At the very least, Martian microbes would be of immense value to human beings: for example, as an object of scientific study. Thus, we should enforce a strong precautionary principle in our initial dealings with Mars (as a recent debate over planetary protection policies illustrates).

For Every Complex Question, There’s a Simple, Incorrect Answer

Mariomania seems to be the latest example of the idea, common among undergraduates in their first ethics class, that morality is all about establishing highly general rules that admit no exception. But such naïve versions of moral ideals don’t long survive contact with the real world.

By way of example, take the “Prime Directive” from TV’s “Star Trek”:

…no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture…Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship…This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Hollywood’s version of moral obligation can be a starting point for our real-world ethical discussion.

As every good trekkie knows, Federation crew members talk about the importance of obeying the prime directive almost as often as they violate it. Here, art reflects reality, since it’s simply not possible to make a one-size-fits-all rule that identifies the right course of action in every morally complex situation. As a result, Federation crews are constantly forced to choose between unpalatable options. On the one hand, they can obey the directive even when it leads to clearly immoral consequences, as when the Enterprise refuses to cure a plague devastating a planet. On the other hand, they can generate ad hoc reasons to ignore the rule, as when Captain Kirk decides that destroying a supercomputer running an alien society doesn’t violate the spirit of the directive.

Of course, we shouldn’t take Hollywood as a perfect guide to policy. The Prime Directive is merely a familiar example of the universal tension between highly general moral ideals and real-world applications. We will increasingly see the kinds of problems such tension creates in real life as technology opens up vistas beyond Earth for exploration and exploitation. If we insist on declaring unrealistic moral ideals in our guiding documents, we should not be surprised when decision makers are forced to find ways around them. For example, the U.S. Congress’ recent move to allow asteroid mining can be seen as flying in the face of the “collective good of mankind” ideals expressed in the Outer Space Treaty signed by all space-faring nations.

The solution is to do the hard work of formulating the right principles, at the right level of generality, before circumstances render moral debate irrelevant. This requires grappling with the complex trade-offs and hard choices in an intellectually honest fashion, while refusing the temptation to put forward soothing but impractical moral platitudes. We must therefore foster thoughtful exchanges among people with very different conceptions of the moral good in order to find common ground. It’s time for that conversation to begin in earnest.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars

How to Harvest Terawatts of Solar Power on the Moon

By David Warmflash | April 22, 2016 1:03 pm
luna-ring

(Credit: Shimzu)

Planet Earth isn’t the most ideal place for solar power to thrive. Sunsets and weather afford solar panels a significant amount of downtime.

But there’s a place not too far from here where the sun never stops shining.

A handful of researchers, and more recently the Japanese corporation Shimizu, have been gearing up to develop solar power on the moon.

Shimizu took off with the idea in 2013 in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 Fukishima accident, which produced a political climate demanding alternatives to nuclear power plants. Shimizu’s plans call for beginning construction of a lunar solar power base as early as 2035. The solar array would be 250 miles wide and span the lunar circumference of 6,800 miles. They’re calling it the Luna Ring. Read More

Mercury Keeps Getting Weirder

By David Rothery, The Open University | March 11, 2016 11:58 am
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An image of Mercury via the MESSENGER spacecraft. This false-color image is enhanced to show the chemical, mineralogical and physical differences between the rocks that make up Mercury’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

For such a tiny planet, Mercury is a pretty big puzzle for researchers. NASA’s MESSENGER probe already has revealed that the planet is surprisingly rich in elements that easily evaporate from the surface, such as sulphur, chlorine, sodium and potassium. This is incredibly odd as these kind of substances most likely would disappear during a hot or violent birth – exactly the type of birth a planet so close to the sun, such as Mercury, would have had.

Scientists are also struggling to understand why Mercury is so dark and what its earliest planetary crust, created as the newly-formed planet cooled down, was made of. Research has now started to throw up answers – but these are raising a lot of new questions. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

5 Retro Space Missions That Failed to Launch

By Shannon Stirone | March 7, 2016 1:12 pm
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Frank Tinsley’s vision for what it would take to rope in a satellite in space. (Credit: American Bosch Arma/Frank Tinsley)

The space race officially started in 1957 when the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth. This demonstration of technological prowess during the Cold War spurred US leaders in 1958 to transform the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics into the agency we’re all familiar with: NASA. The newly minted agency needed to work quickly to reclaim the nation’s technological supremacy. NASA’s budget was increased to hire of the best scientists and engineers that money could buy. But NASA wasn’t the only red-white-and-blue pony running in the space race.

Private companies in the Land of Liberty were motivated to research, design and sell their cutting-edge technology to NASA for its future space missions. The private sector had big, bold plans to turn the US into a space-faring nation — perhaps too big. To market their ambitions, companies often turned to famed 1950s science fiction illustrator Frank Tinsley to visualize their concepts.

Some of these exciting ideas came to fruition — in a scaled-down form. However, most were left to live and die in the magazine pages where they were printed to build buzz. The concepts for many of these missions were certainly out of this world. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing they also failed to ever do. Here’s a look at some of the more notable missions that failed to launch. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

The Other Astronomical Breakthrough That Took 100 Years to Achieve

By Jeffrey Wilkerson, Luther College | February 24, 2016 4:29 pm
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The binary star system, Cygni 61, is seen here in the upper left portion of the image. Friedrich Bessel in 1838 measured the system’s distance from Earth at About 10.4 light years, which was very close to the actual distance of about 11.4 light years. It was the first distance estimate for any star other than the sun. It was also the first hard evidence of the trigonometric parallax. (Credit: Pepe Manteca/Flickr)

Well, here we are two weeks into the era of gravitational wave astronomy. I trust that by now you have read and heard all about the LIGO discovery of gravitational waves from two black holes merging and what it means for astronomy.

These are indeed exciting times and it is worth pausing to think about this announcement in the context of other big astronomical discoveries that were generations in the making. Perhaps the best historical analog for the gravitational wave search and detection is the search for the trigonometric parallax, or a method to measure the distance to stars. Its existence was long theorized, but observational evidence was harder to come by. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

What to Expect if Earth Ever Falls Into a Black Hole

By Kevin Pimbblet, University of Hull | February 16, 2016 12:22 pm
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An artist’s interpretation of a giant black hole called CID-947. (Credit: M. Helfenbein, Yale University / OPAC)

Black holes have long been a source of much excitement and intrigue. And interest regarding black holes will surely grow now that gravitational waves have been discovered.

Many of the questions I am asked regard how “true” science fiction concerning black holes might be, and whether worm holes, such as those featured in Stargate, are real or not. Invariably though, the one item that is almost assured to come up are the largely gruesome ways in which black holes might theoretically affect human beings and the Earth itself.

Mass, Charge, Spin

There are three properties of a black hole that are (in principle) measurable: their mass, their spin (or angular momentum) and their overall electronic charge. Indeed, these are the only three parameters that an outside observer can ever know about since all other information about anything that goes into making up a black hole is lost. This is known as the “no hair theorem”. Put simply: no matter how hairy or complex an object you throw into a black hole, it will get reduced down (or shaved) to its mass, charge and spin.

Of these parameters, mass is arguably the most significant. The very definition of a black hole is that it has its mass concentrated in to a vanishingly small volume – the “singularity”. And it is the mass of the black hole – and the huge gravitational forces that its mass generates – which does the “damage” to nearby objects.

Space Spaghetti

One of the best known effects of a nearby black hole has the imaginative title of “Spaghettification”. In brief, if you stray too close to a black hole, then you will stretch out, just like spaghetti.

This effect is caused due to a gravitation gradient across your body. Imagine that you are headed feet first towards a black hole. Since your feet are physically closer to the black hole, they will feel a stronger gravitation pull toward it than your head will. Worse than that, your arms, by virtue of the fact that they’re not at the center of your body, will be attracted in a slightly different (vector) direction than your head is. This will cause parts of the body toward the edges to be brought inward. The net result is not only an elongation of the body overall, but also a thinning out (or compression) in the middle. Hence, your body or any other object, such as Earth, will start to resemble spaghetti long before it hits the center of the black hole.

The exact point at which these forces become too much to bear will depend critically on the mass of a black hole. For an “ordinary” black hole that has been produced by the collapse of a high mass star, this could be several hundred kilometers away from the event horizon – the point beyond which no information can escape a black hole. Yet for a supermassive black hole, such as the one thought to reside at the center of our galaxy, an object could readily sink below the event horizon before becoming spaghetti, at a distance of many tens of thousands of kilometers from its center. For a distant observer outside the event horizon of the black hole, it would appear that we progressively slow down and then fade away over time.

Bad News for Earth

What would happen, hypothetically, if a black hole appeared out of nowhere next to Earth? The same gravitational effects that produced spaghettification would start to take effect here. The edge of the Earth closest to the black hole would feel a much stronger force than the far side. As such, the doom of the entire planet would be at hand. We would be pulled apart.

Equally, we might not even notice if a truly supermassive black hole swallowed us below its event horizon as everything would appear as it once was, at least for a small period of time. In this case, it could be some time before disaster struck. But don’t lose too much sleep, we’d have to be unfortunate to “hit” a black hole in the first place – and we might live on holographically after the crunch anyway.

Mind the Radiation

Interestingly, black holes are not necessarily black. Quasars – objects at the hearts of distant galaxies powered by black holes – are supremely bright. They can readily outshine the rest of their host galaxy combined. Such radiation is generated when the black hole is feasting on new material. To be clear: this material is still outside the event horizon which is why we can still see it. Below the event horizon is where nothing, not even light, can escape. As all the matter piles up from the feast, it will glow. It is this glow that is seen when observers look at quasars.

But this is a problem for anything orbiting (or near) a black hole, as it is very hot indeed. Long before we would be spaghettified, the sheer power of this radiation would fry us.

Life Around a Black Hole

For those who have watched Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, the prospect of a planet orbiting around a black hole might be an appealing one. For life to thrive, there needs to be a source of energy or a temperature difference. And a black hole can be that source. There’s a catch, though. The black hole needs to have stopped feasting on any material – or it will be emitting too much radiation to support life on any neighboring worlds.

What life would look like on such a world (assuming its not too close to get spaghettified, of course) is another matter. The amount of power received by the planet would probably be tiny compared to what Earth receives from the Sun. And the overall environment of such a planet could be equally bizarre. Indeed, in the creation of Interstellar, Kip Thorne was consulted to ensure the accuracy of the depiction of the black hole featured. These factors do not preclude life, it just makes it a tough prospect and very hard to predict what forms it could take.

 

(This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: physics

World’s Most Sensitive Dark Matter Detector Gets a Boost

By Jeffrey Wilkerson, Luther College | January 22, 2016 1:06 pm
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Scientists assemble the LUX dark matter detector. (Credit: Matthew Kapust/Sanford Underground Research Facility)

One truism for me that I suspect holds some tiny bit of general truth for many across the broad, beautiful swath of humanity is that the longer I live the more history compresses.

Today the work Brahe, Kepler and Galileo did to understand the geometry of the solar system doesn’t seem as distant to me as the scenes from Happy Days did shortly after we landed on the moon. When I teach astronomy and physics I circle back to certain ideas repeatedly. One of these ideas is related to the evolving sense of the flow of time, wherever it may slip. This concept centers on my need to get students to come to terms with the notion that the ideas in their textbooks got there as a result of real struggles by real people. As clear and obvious as the textbook physics may appear, it almost assuredly was a dirty mess at the time. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: dark matter
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