Tag Archives: space exploration


Superb! And incredible!




This morning, SpaceX did a test run of its Crew Dragon capsule’s abort system. It’s a significant protocol the company would use if the module were ever in trouble on the launch pad.

In 2017, the Crew Dragon will be tasked with ferrying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and it’s important these men and women are as safe as possible during their missions. That means SpaceX and NASA will need to be prepared for all sorts of catastrophes that could befall the crew, even if these events are incredibly rare.

One such event could include a botched launch, in which the area around the launch pad becomes dangerous during liftoff (perhaps due to an unintended explosion or errant rocket booster). In this scenario, the Dragon and its astronauts will need to get out of there. Fast. So SpaceX has embedded the walls of its crew module with eight SuperDraco engines, which can rapidly carry the vehicle up and away from the launch pad to safety.

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who conducted a media teleconference after the test, the capsule went from 0 to 100 miles per hour in 1.2 seconds, reaching a top speed of 345 mph. He noted that if any astronauts had been on board, they would have fared just fine. Now, the next few tests for the Crew Dragon include an in-flight abort test and an unmanned launch to the ISS, with the module ready for its intended astronaut riders in two years.

Check out the company’s first critical test of this exit strategy below, with a dummy astronaut along for the ride.


Regardless of whether it harbors life on Titan or not such a compound could provide great benefits and numerous applications for our future use, regardless of whether those applications are biological, chemical, or physical.

Also this would make for a great sci-fi story, mundane or hard sci-fi.


Ultracold-Resistant Chemical on Titan Could Allow It to Harbor Life

Computer simulations reveal that a compound found on Saturn’s largest moon may be able to form a freeze-resistant, flexible membrane that could encapsulate cells or organelles

This computational finding could have lasting implications for scientists who study Titan’s geochemistry.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Astrobiologists and planetary scientists have a fairly good idea of which chemicals might indicate the presence of oxygen-breathing, water-based life—that is if it is like us. When it comes to worlds such as Saturn’s moon Titan, however, where temperatures are too cold for aqueous biochemistry, it’s much harder to know which chemicals could signal the existence of hydrocarbon-based life.

A Cornell University team may have found a plausible candidate chemical that future missions to Titan could search for. The computer-simulation study, which appeared in the February 27 Science Advances [http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400067], found that acrylonitrile, a hydrocarbon known to form in Titan’s atmosphere, can organize itself into a structure having the same toughness and flexibility characteristic of the membranes that envelop cells on Earth and form the boundaries of organelles like mitochondria and the nucleus.

This computational finding could have lasting implications for scientists who study Titan’s geochemistry. For many planetary scientists, it’s their favorite moon. Like Earth, Titan has a dense atmosphere complete with clouds, mountains, riverbeds and liquid seas on its surface. In fact, Titan would probably be the most promising place, rather than Europa, to look for extraterrestrial life in the solar system if not for its frigidity.

Titan is way too cold for life as we know it. At Titanian surface temperatures (–179 Celsius) phospholipids—the chemical compounds that comprise cell membranes—and the water-based solutions that fill cells would be frozen solid. Any life that evolved on Titan’s surface would have to be made of a very different set of chemicals.

In the team’s computer model acrylonitriles formed hollow balls (called azotosomes) that behave, even in the cold, in much the way hollow balls made of Earthly phospholipids (called liposomes) that form membranes in our cells and organelles. Like liposomes, azotosomes can bend into many different shapes and could act as a barrier between the inside and the outside of the bubbles they form, keeping the ethane–methane mix of Titan’s seas from penetrating the encapsulation. (Because this study is the first of its kind, we don’t know much about which hydrocarbons would be inside the azotosome.)

The degree of similarity between the hypothetical azotosomes and Earth-based liposomes was a surprise to the researchers. “I’m not a biochemist, so I didn’t really know what I was looking for [at first],” says James Stevenson, the chemical engineering grad student who ran the computer simulations. “And when I did the calculations—lo and behold!” The simulated azotosomes at Titanian temperature were just as stretchable as liposomes at Earth temperatures. Because flexibility and the ability to withstand poking and twisting are crucial for evolving complex cellular behavior, azotosomes could potentially be a very useful structure for hypothetical alien life in ethane–methane seas and lakes such as those on Titan.

This study demonstrates that “at least in a computer simulation, one can build structures of a size and geometry [roughly] equivalent to the containers that were on the Earth when life began,” says planetary physicist and study co-author Jonathan Lunine. “You can do it with materials that we know are present on Titan…So we’ve presented potentially one step toward the evolution of life under Titan conditions.”

Chemical engineer and co-author Paulette Clancy compares figuring out how life might form on Titan in the absence of liquid water to “trying to make an omelet without any eggs. It sort of redefines how you think about an omelet,” she says.

Scientists will not know whether the acrylonitrile on Titan’s surface actually forms the azotosome structures, let alone whether those structures are components of life, unless a new we send another probe and investigate the hydrocarbon seas’ chemistry in more detail. “Titan is literally awash with organics—but it’s impossible to disentangle them remotely,” Ralph Lorenz, a NASA scientist who designs and builds planetary exploration probes and who was not involved in this study, wrote in an e-mail. “You need to land, sample the material and use sophisticated chemistry instruments (like those on the Mars rover Curiosity) to see how complex the compounds have become and whether they can execute any of the functions of life.”

Lorenz and others have proposed a few designs for automated submarines or torpedo-shaped probes that could remotely explore Titan’s seas, but those missions are several decades away. Furthermore, even if the space agencies began building a craft for a mission to Titan right away, it would be impossible to get it there before Saturn’s seasonal revolution renders the moon’s northern hemisphere inaccessible for direct-to-Earth communications. The hydrocarbons seas are clustered on Titan’s northern hemisphere, and because that hemisphere will be facing away from the Earth, any missions to Titan during the 2020s will require an orbiter companion that can relay signals back to Earth. Orbiters are expensive, so we probably won’t be able to probe Titan’s hydrocarbon seas until the 2030s.

So for the time being Titanian azotosomes will remain a hypothetical. But on the bright side, when the next mission does reach Titan, it will have a much more precise idea of which chemicals it should try to find.





I’ve been advocating for exploring the oceans of other worlds for years. And I’ve written fictional stories about it. Very, very good to see them preparing.


In a sneak peek of a possible future mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, NASA has showcased their vision of a robotic submersible that could explore the moon’s vast lakes of liquid methane and ethane.

VIDEO: Can a Moon be Older Than its Planet?

Studying Titan is thought to be looking back in time at an embryonic Earth, only a lot colder. Titan is the only moon in the solar system to have a significant atmosphere and this atmosphere is known to possess its own methane cycle, like Earth’s water cycle. Methane exists in a liquid state, raining down on a landscape laced with hydrocarbons, forming rivers, valleys and seas.

Several seas have been extensively studied by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during multiple flybys, some of which average a few meters deep, whereas others have depths of over 200 meters (660 feet) — the maximum depth at which Cassini’s radar instrument can penetrate.

So, if scientists are to properly explore Titan, they must find a way to dive into these seas to reveal their secrets.

ANALYSIS: Cassini Watches Clouds Blow Over Titan’s Sea

At this year’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium, a Titan submarine concept was showcased by NASA Glenn’s COMPASS Team and researchers from Applied Research Lab.

Envisaged as a possible mission to Titan’s largest sea, Kracken Mare, the autonomous submersible would be designed to make a 90 day, 2,000 kilometer (1,250 mile) voyage exploring the depths of this vast and very alien marine environment. As it would spend long periods under the methane sea’s surface, it would have to be powered by a radioisotope generator; a source that converts the heat produced by radioactive pellets into electricity, much like missions that are currently exploring space, like Cassini and Mars rover Curiosity.

Communicating with Earth would not be possible when the vehicle is submerged, so it would need to make regular ascents to the surface to transmit science data.

ANALYSIS: Cassini Spies Wind-Rippled Sea on Titan

But Kracken Mare is not a tranquil lake fit for gentle sailing — it is known to have choppy waves and there is evidence of tides, all contributing to the challenge. Many of the engineering challenges have already been encountered when designing terrestrial submarines — robotic and crewed — but as these seas will be extremely cold (estimated to be close to the freezing point of methane, 90 Kelvin or -298 degrees Fahrenheit), a special piston-driven propulsion system will need to be developed and a nitrogen will be needed as ballast, for example.

This study is just that, a study, but the possibility of sending a submersible robot to another world would be as unprecedented as it is awesome.

Although it’s not clear at this early stage what the mission science would focus on, it would be interesting to sample the chemicals at different depths of Kracken Mare.

ANALYSIS: Titan’s ‘Magic Island’ Appeared Mysteriously From the Depths

“Measurement of the trace organic components of the sea, which perhaps may exhibit prebiotic chemical evolution, will be an important objective, and a benthic sampler (a robotic grabber to sample sediment) would acquire and analyze sediment from the seabed,” the authors write (PDF). “These measurements, and seafloor morphology via sidescan sonar, may shed light on the historical cycles of filling and drying of Titan’s seas. Models suggest Titan’s active hydrological cycle may cause the north part of Kraken to be ‘fresher’ (more methane-rich) than the south, and the submarine’s long traverse will explore these composition variations.”

A decade after the European Huygens probe landed on the surface of Titan imaging the moon’s eerily foggy atmosphere, there have been few plans to go back to this tantalizing world. It would be incredible if, in the next few decades, we could send a mission back to Titan to directly sample what is at the bottom of its seas, exploring a region where the molecules for life’s chemistry may be found in abundance.


Good if it is a faulty sensor or relay.

Gas leak scare triggers International Space Station evacuation

Nasa says there is ‘no hard data’ to suggest a leak, and that the most likely culprit is a ‘faulty sensor or computer relay’

Astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been evacuated to the Russian segment of the station after alarms were triggered that can “sometimes be indicative of an apparent ammonia leak.” Although an earlier report from Russia’s Federal Space Agency claimed that there were “harmful emissions,” Nasa has since clarified that “there is no hard data to suggest that there was a real ammonia leak” and that the problem is likely “a faulty sensor or computer relay.”

Nasa reports that onboard crew — comprising two American astronauts, one Italian astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts — followed normal safety procedures and donned gas masks, moving to the Russian half of the ISS and sealing the American segment behind them. The flight control team in Houston reports that crew members are in “excellent shape” and that all other systems onboard the ISS are functioning perfectly.

Canadian astronaut and former ISS crew member Chris Hadfield tweeted that a leaking coolant system was one of the “big three” emergencies that astronauts train for on the station. “Ammonia is used for cooling through pipes & heat exchangers on the outside of Station,” said Hadfield. “We train for it & the crew and MCC [mission control center] have responded well.” He added that the other big emergencies were “fire/smoke” and “contaminated atmosphere/medical.”

NASA is currently updating the situation and says that the most likely cause at this point in time is “a faulty sensor or computer relay.”

Update January 4th, 8:23AM ET: This article was amended to reflect the latest reports from NASA suggesting that the alarm was falsely triggered.



I’ll be hoping and praying for their success!

For The First Time, SpaceX Will Land A Rocket After Launch

New year, new reusable spacecraft


SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket


Elon Musk is starting off 2015 with a bang – or hopefully, a soft landing.

On January 6, Musk’s company SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station. The launch itself is fairly unremarkable; SpaceX has had a contract with NASA for some time now to transport cargo to the ISS via unmanned rockets, as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program. What SpaceX will attempt to do after the launch is what makes the mission so exciting. The company will try to land the first stage of its Falcon rocket on a platform in the ocean — a feat that has never been done before.

If successful, the landing will be the first major step toward one of the holy grails of the space industry: reusable rockets. Up until now, all rocket launches have been something of a one-and-done stunt. After a rocket blasts off, the first stage of the vehicle – which comprises the bulk of the rocket and contains most of the engines and fuel – burns up and falls away into the ocean, never to be used again. This rocket design is known as a disposable launch system, and it makes launching rockets extremely expensive. The only exception has been the Space Shuttle, which was considered a partially reusable launch system; although the shuttle itself and its solid rocket boosters were recovered after each launch, its large external tank, which carried most of the shuttle’s fuel, broke apart and was never re-used. This made launching shuttles quite costly, as well, since a new external tank had to be built for each flight.

Here’s to 2015: The year that space flight could become affordable.

Imagine if this type of design were applied to air travel, and every time you flew in an airplane, the plane had to be discarded and then rebuilt for its next trip; a ticket from New York to Los Angeles would require a lifetime of savings. Disposable launch systems are why space tourism is currently reserved for the nerdy 1 percent (and British pop singers) – but reusable rockets could change all that, by bringing down the cost of space flight and revolutionizing the space industry.

X-Wing Configuration


The hypersonic grid wings attached to the Falcon 9 rocket

To ensure the safe landing of its Falcon 9, SpaceX has equipped the rocket with four “hypersonic grid fins” (placed on the vehicle in an “X-wing” configuration). The fins will be closed during ascent, but when the first stage falls to Earth, the fins will extend perpendicular from the rocket’s body. They can then move independently of one another, to help control the vehicle’s descent and guarantee a precise landing on the rocket’s target.

That target is an autonomous spaceport drone ship, meant to catch the landing rocket in the Atlantic Ocean. The ship’s landing platform is 300 by 100 feet, but it also comes with wings that can extend its width to 170 feet. The seaport itself isn’t anchored, but boasts powerful thrusters that will help it stay in place.

Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship


Yet landing on such a small platform that isn’t completely stationary won’t be easy, and Musk estimates a 50 percent chance of success on January 6. Plus, the landing will occur after the first stage separates from the second stage — the part of the rocket that will take the cargo capsule the rest of the way to the ISS. That means not all of the rocket will be saved, as the second stage will never be recovered. (However, Musk plans to recover the second stage in future launches.)

Still, the fact that SpaceX is attempting such an endeavor instills hope for a cheaper commercial spaceflight industry. According to Quartz, the cost to build a Falcon 9 rocket is $54 million, but the cost of its fuel is only $200,000. If launching a rocket in the future only required refueling and other servicing costs on the ground, that could bring down the price of going to space by millions of dollars.

So here’s to 2015: The year that space flight could become affordable.

Correction (01/02/2015, 2:50 pm ET): The original story misstated where the rocket will attempt to land; it’s the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific, and it has been corrected. We regret the error.