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Sunday, 17 May 2015

The race for the next space drive heats up....

The race to the next space drive heats up...

Firstly some breaking news: A Russian Proton rocket has  exploded eight minutes after launch, destroying its cargo which included a Mexican comsat. This will be a big blow for the Russian space agency, who very recently lost a robotic freighter  bound for the international space station, and have had to delay all subsequent flights there as a result.

Above: The rockets launch apparently went well, but not long after this video was shot bad things happened... Courtesy of Eurasianews.

Not too long ago I reported on efforts to build space drives that fly using light (known as solar sails). They work off the principle that photons -  particles of light -  exert a tiny push on the things they hit,  and if a spacecraft with a large reflective sail could catch enough light it could use this push to propel itself.  One such spacecraft has already flown, the Japanese IKAROS spacecraft. Now another is set to fly: A test model of the Planetary Society's Lightsail 1 will launch on May 20th.

The tiny space craft won't actually use its lightsail - it wont fly high enough to escape all of Earth's atmosphere. But it will do some tests and take some pictures. The big test will come in 2016 when the same design  will actually fly under lightsail power. The Planetary Society is not only a private organisation but a public funded one,  so they. 've set up a kick starter to help get themselves off the ground.  More on the kickstarter here

Above: Some science guy, who wants you to help him build a space ship. Apparently he's famous...?

Space recon:
Prox-1 is a potentially revolutionary mission of a different type, launching on the the same 2016 rocket as Lightsail 1: Its aim is to be able to intercept and inspect other space craft- starting with lightsail once its sail is unfurled!  If the idea behind Prox-1 sounds familiar its because, not long ago, the Russian space agency was rumoured to have launched a vehicle that could intercept and 'inspect'  other spacecraft -  some people argued it was the beginning of a new kind of in space weapon. Prox-1 is a US airforce supported project, and is equipped with infra red and optical sensors only. No spacxe guns as far I know. And if it did I wouldn't say (John says as a little red dot centres itself on his forehead..).

Photon Thruster:
The advantage of lightsail's that they wont need to carry fuel - but the disadvantage would be a minute thrust. It's all very well being efficient, but if your SMART car took did 0 to 60 in 3.8 weeks you'd be fairly limited in what you could do with it. You can turbo charge a sail by using a powerful laser instead of sunlight,  but there's a different kind of engine that uses light which goes even further: the Photonic thruster.

Above: The leader of the photonic thruster team gives us some explanation that isn't quite as ham fisted as mine.
The Photonic thruster (which reminds me of the 'photon accelerator drive' in Bucky O'hare)  uses the same principle as the lightsail but uses a n artificial laser light source and adds a second mirror at the source -  this means that the photons keep bouncing between the craft and the laser,  and the craft can keep getting a push from the same recycled photons. Just this week a Japanese team reported their lab based photonic thruster had accelerated a weight along a frictionless track.

Above: The demonstration being used to show how much thrust the photonic thruster can generate
This shows the potential of the idea, but it will be a while before it gets from an idea to an engine as cool as captain Bucky O'Hare's...

Above: Yes, sometimes I just include cool cartoons. It's my blog dammit.

Elsewhere in the universe:
Why that thunderstorm might be a lot more powerful than you think:
Thunderstorms are not exactly known for being quiet,  low profile things.

In recent years they've not just been loud but getting weird as well - a bit like if Thor revealed he'd been rooting for Loki all along -. They've been shown to sprout gigantic jellyfish shaped plasma bolts called sprites from their tops, and it's been known for decades that they can produce other poorly understood phenomena, like ball lightning. Now they have another, even stranger, feather in their cap: They make antimatter - that's they ultra explosive stuff from that movie with Tom Hanks in - something that we can only do in particle accelerators. The lightning bolts in a storm produce brief pulses of antimatter through some unknown mechanism - and and given the power of antimatter a lot of people would like to make that mechanism known. Link here.

Wild 2 comet gets weirder:

Above: Wild 2, looming out of the darkness like... like.. um. One of the things about space travel is that, often, what you see doesn't compare to anything else. Courtesy of NASA.
Comet Wild 2 has already rewritten everything we know about comets once, when samples returned from it by the stardust space probe revealed it contained material formed at high temperatures - a bit odd for a giant snowball. Now the Wild 2 samples have changed the game again, by revealing that the finest grained dust in them is either from all across the inner solar system, or is preserved material directly from the protoplanetary disc that formed the planets. Link here.

How did Earth survive the faint, dim Sun?
Above: Earth as an iceball. Courtesy of the BBC. The image that is, not the ice age.
One of the puzzling things about the solar system's deep past is that the Sun would have been a good deal fainter. So faint, in fact, that both Earth an Mars should have been ice locked. Yet we have tons of evidence that both planets had liquid water at that time, and that life on Earth was able to get started.Now a study from the Sternberg astronomy research centre has suggested an answer: If the Dark energy field, thought to permeate the universe, has a certain range of uniformity  then it could have caused the planets to spiral slowly outwards over time. This would mean that Earth started its life closer to the Sun, and moved further away, keeping the temperature more or less constant. Link here.

Elsewhere on the internet:

Dragon space capsules might become the workhorse of deep space exploration:

Does dark energy make us exist?

Neutrinos come in three flavours

Miniaturisation: The final frontier

Another dark matter search comes up empty

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