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Sunday 8 November 2015

How space industry can save lives, ULA plans the next steps to expand our space economy....

 Today is remembrance Sunday. For me it's a reminder of all that has been suffered by people in war. If you are a wounded soldier, ex-soldier, or a relative of one, my thoughts are with you today and always.

What good does space industry do?

Although a lot of the news from space is about finding aliens, new planets, or ...well, weird isn't just a playground for boffins who want to be the first to find  life on Mars: It's a hundred billion dollar resource that we make use of every day. The ability to get some distance away from our planet, its weather and its gravity, and look back is something that can do great good here on Earth. Here's a good example:
This year’s El Niño, one of the strongest on record, could cause droughts that would leave people in Central America, most of Sub-Saharan Africa, and South East Asia without food. This episode of  “Focus On Zero Hunger” series shows how the European Space Agency is helping the World Food Program prepare for it.

ULA plans to grow the space economy:

Space is a multibillion dollar resource for the world,  but there is potentially a lot more we could do with it. United Launch Alliance, who provide rocket launches for spacecraft, have begun posting infographics on Twitter, showing how they hope the future of Humankinds space economy will play out. The first showed where we are today, the second where they aim to take us in five years... and we're waiting on the rest.....

What can we make of this? Talk is cheap, infographics only slightly less so. This certainly has the tang of advertising to it - in the 'present day' infographic the rockets shown are ULA rockets, even though there are a lot of launchers and all the manned flights go on Russian Soyuz rockets. Also the numbers - 5 astronauts populating cis-lunar space and a space economy of $330 billion - are open to interpretation: The number of astronauts in space can be as high as twelve at times, and it's not clear if $330 billion is supposed to be the worth of what is actually in space or the worth of all the space related activities on the ground to.

But that said.. it's a beguiling vision. 20 People on orbit by 2020, commercial space stations and research... I'll be very happy if our activities in space grow at such a rate, and so I'm going to hope ULA are basing these infographics on a bit more than just good PR. In the meantime, I wonder what they think we'll be doing in 2025....

The technology to steal part of an asteroid begins testing

It's an audacious plan: Snatch a chunk of an asteroid, use a robotic spacecraft to tow it into an orbit around the Moon, and use it as a destination for space missions - and a practise ground for some of the tasks that will be needed for visiting Mars and its moons. NASA calls it the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), and while it's definitely got its critics it should be one hell of a show. But the first step - grabbing a chunk of asteroid - will need a robotic probe equipped with the most advanced robotic arms ever built. NASA has begun testing the technology for that arm, and the asteroid capturing module will have two arms and three 'legs': Dr Ken Kramer of Universe today got the chance to speak with deputy project manager Ben Reed - follow the title link for the whole thing.

"The idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder. Once it's grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface. Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home," said Reed.

To give you a bit more of a feel of ARM here's an animation of what NASA plans for the robotic part of the mission...


....and how it thinks the manned part will go.... 


Superconductor that works at -70 degrees Celcius confirmed

This was originally announced last year,  but as with any such breakthrough the scientific community have demanded ironclad proof... and the investigating team have found it. Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with no resistance- so a superconducting cable would allow electricity to be carried with no losses, and they have a number of other bizarre properties, like levitation. 
The implications for almost every field of technology, including space use and travel, are breathtaking -  The problem is that until now all superconducters needed to be cooled far below freezing to work.  Now a team from the Rome International Centre for Materials Science have found that sulphur hydride needs to only be cooled to minus seventy degrees Celcius to superconduct - that's the temperature of a top end biological sample freezer.
The idea is still a long way from being usable on large scales, and still needs high pressures to work,  but its a result that seems to be pointing towards new, more practical superconductors.... and perhaps even the holy grail of a superconductor that work at room temperature.

Above: A demonstration of some of the strange and useful things superconducters can do, courtesy of the Royal institute.

'Familly' of dust devils spotted on Mars
Dust devils - swirling desert tornado's - are a staple of the Martian weather. They can grow to enormous sizes, but the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted something new: A cluster of eight devils, all moving in relatively close quarters. That makes for some very interesting weather science, as no-one is quite sure how so many devils in such close quarters will interact with each other.

Above: The eight devils in the group, seen from space

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