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Multiple Powerful Rockets Are Coming Online Soon

An emerging class of powerful rockets is supposed to start flying in the next couple of years. They’re known as heavy-lift launch vehicles. These rockets are capable of getting a whole lot of stuff into space at once — and everyone seems to be making one.

SpaceX has been promising that its Falcon Heavy, a larger variant of the Falcon 9 rocket, will fly for the first time this summer. The United Launch Alliance is working on a brand-new vehicle called the Vulcan that’s supposed to fly in 2019. And spaceflight company Blue Origin is the latest to throw its hat in the ring, recently claiming its next big rocket, the New Glenn, will be able to deliver 100,000 pounds of cargo — and eventually people — to lower Earth orbit.

At the same time, NASA is developing a monster rocket of its own; it’s called the Space Launch System, and it’s being touted as the most powerful rocket ever created. Similar in shape and size to the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon, the Space Launch System, or SLS, will be capable of carrying between 150,000 and 290,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit (or up to the weight of nine school buses). In capability, the vehicle dwarfs the other rockets the private space industry is working on.


But when it comes to comparing rockets, bigger isn’t necessarily always better. The SLS may dwarf the other commercial rockets in capability, but in other key areas, the giant vehicle falls short. For one thing, it’s expensive to launch — around $1 billion per mission. And it’s not going to launch very often either, probably only once or twice a year. Some experts argue that it’s these numbers we should use to measure a rocket’s merit: not how much it can carry, but how much it costs and how frequently the vehicle is expected to launch. If those are the standards, then the SLS isn’t necessarily the best vehicle to pull off ambitious goals in space.

If we ever want to send people to the Moon or Mars, NASA needs to get the most value for its money, especially when it comes to actual launches. NASA’s budget is already pretty limited at roughly $19 billion a year, or about 0.5 percent of the overall Federal Budget. And that funding isn’t expected to dramatically increase anytime soon. Meanwhile, NASA estimates that a crewed mission to Mars could cost upwards of $400 billion over the next 30 years, and advisors to the space agency have suggested that NASA look for ways to cut those costs.

The new batch of smaller but efficient commercial rockets presents a possible way to do that.

“Having New Glenn, having Falcon Heavy, having SLS — once they’re flying, putting them next to each other will be the first time we’ve had that many capabilities and that many choices,” Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama and a former representative for SpaceX, said. “And the ultimate benefactor of that is the American taxpayer and NASA.”

In that case, does NASA need the SLS? And how do you measure the value of a rocket?


Right now in the US, there is already a diverse landscape of commercial rockets that can launch satellites and cargo into orbit. You have SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for instance, the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, and Orbital ATK’s Antares. These vehicles aren’t what you would call “heavy lift” though — they can launch between 20,000 to 50,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit. To be considered a heavy-lift vehicle, a rocket should be capable of launching upwards of 50,000 to about 100,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit, according to NASA.

Heavy-lift launchers are usually considered crucial for doing more ambitious space missions, such as sending humans into deep space or to the surface of another world. A lot of heavy cargo will be needed to do a Mars mission or to start a lunar base: people will have to ride inside a spacecraft that can keep them alive, landers will be needed to take passengers and cargo to the surface of another planet, and a propulsion system will be needed to move all of this hardware through space. Throw in habitats and food supplies, and you’ve got a lot of stuff you need to break free of Earth’s gravity.

All of these pieces may weigh a lot combined, but no one says they have to be launched together. In fact, to do any of these complex missions in space, it’s almost certain that multiple launches will be needed. That’s because there simply isn’t anything big enough to take all the pieces together at once. Take NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Saturn V is still considered perhaps the most powerful rocket ever made, capable of getting more than 260,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit. And in the end, it was still only able to get about 100,000 pounds to the Moon’s surface, according to NASA.

The main problem revolves around the fuel, or propellant, you need for the trip. Earth has a pretty sizable gravity well, so a vehicle has to burn lots of propellant to reach a speed of thousands of miles per hour needed to break free of the planet’s pull. For particularly heavy cargo or human crews going into deep space, even more propellant is needed; the engine has to burn longer to compensate for the extra weight and distance. Propellant is heavy and takes up a lot of space — that’s why you need a huge rocket to house it all. And the more propellant you add, the more propellant you need to lift it all.

If you plan on taking all your propellant with you for a deep-space mission, then you definitely need a huge rocket to house it all. But there’s also the option of “going up dry” — just bringing the fuel needed for launching to orbit and having empty tanks when you get there. Then a separate rocket can be sent up to refuel your vehicle. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who’s had his eye on a Mars colony for years, doesn’t expect to send everything to the planet’s surface in one flight. His proposed Interplanetary Transport System, which is supposed to take up to 100 colonists to and from the Martian surface, is designed to launch into lower Earth orbit and then wait to get fueled up by another vehicle launched separately.

There’s also the option of setting up fuel outposts in space — think “space gas stations” — where vehicles can make pit stops on their way from Earth. “You might fill it up in lower Earth orbit and go to lunar orbit and fill it up there, if you do it that way,” Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, a space consulting firm, and a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, said. “You minimize the size of the hardware you need.”

These are just a few ways to get complex hardware into space, but one thing remains the same: no ambitious mission to Mars or colony on the Moon is going to be done in one launch alone. And that means you don’t necessarily need a monster rocket to pull such a mission off.


Heavy-lift vehicles do have some benefits, and that’s why they’re still favored for crewed missions into deep space. Generally it’s good to get as much up in one launch as you can. That way you save money on doing additional launches — which are easily hundreds of millions of dollars and represent a significant chunk of a mission’s overall budget. “There’s a thing called the tyranny of small launch vehicle economics,” says Miller. “A larger launch vehicle may have a larger price, but the dollars per pound delivered to Earth orbit is lower cost.”

Plus, if you send up different parts on separate rockets, they will still need to be assembled together in space — and that’s expensive. This in-space assembly has to be done either robotically or by people on spacewalks, which is much more costly and more difficult than manufacturing and assembling space vehicles on the ground. So in some aspects, a rocket that can lift the most weight can save on costs. But this economic benefit depends on two key things: how often the vehicle flies and how much it costs to launch just one vehicle.

And this is where the SLS fails. By the mid-2020s, NASA only expects to launch its upcoming vehicle once a year — maybe twice at best. And each launch is expected to cost about $1 billion, according to NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier. Compare that to the other heavy-lift rockets that are expected to be available by the end of the decade. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will be able to carry more than 100,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit. That’s about half of the capability of SLS, but SpaceX says the price tag per flight will start at only $90 million. It’s possible that the price may increase somewhat depending on each mission, but if the vehicle does just three flights a year, it can get more into space than the SLS for a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and a heavy-lift version of ULA’s Vulcan are expected to lift about the same. ULA and Blue Origin haven’t said what it will cost to launch these vehicles. But even if the rockets each cost $500 million to launch and take off at least twice a year, they have already matched the SLS for a similar or lower cost. And experts say there is incentive to keep the launch costs down, since these commercial companies are also driven by profit.

SpaceX, for instance, has been working to slash launch costs by saving parts of its rockets after each launch to be used in future missions. Blue Origin and ULA also plan to make their rockets partially reusable as a cost-saving measure. “The question is cost per pound to lower Earth orbit, cost per pound to the Moon, cost per pound to Mars, and I think it’s indisputable that these private sector options, just by their nature, will be more cost-effective than SLS,” says Larson. “(It’s for) a number of reasons: flight rate, procurement method, and just different ways of doing business.”

The only reason a rocket the size of the SLS would be absolutely needed is if NASA had something huge that could only be launched up in one piece by the rocket. It’s a problem that a few space experts refer to as the “tyranny of the fairing” — referring to the nose cone at the top of a rocket. The size of the nose cone ultimately limits the size of what you can launch into space. And if what you want to launch is particularly large and can be sent only in one piece, then a larger rocket is the way to go.

But right now, there’s nothing that NASA wants to send into space that only the SLS is capable of launching. “To my knowledge there is not yet a single piece of anything that’s been proposed to launch by SLS that’s more than the capacity of New Glenn or Falcon Heavy,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, said.


If NASA hopes to achieve its ambitions of going to deep space and onto Mars, the agency is going to have to find ways to cut costs. One of NASA’s acting chief scientists warned that the agency’s budget isn’t expected to increase, not even to keep up with inflation, for the next five years, Space News reported. Meanwhile, NASA is looking for other ways to cut costs, such as retiring the International Space Station, in order to free up the funds needed to make other vehicles for deep-space missions — like habitats and interplanetary transport vehicles.

But rather than throw away expensive investments  (like the ISS), another option could include using more commercial launches in NASA’s long-term plans, and relying less on SLS. “Ultimately the question is money,” says Muncy. “Can we afford to launch people to Mars or not? And if more of the launches can be done on smaller, cheaper launch vehicles, obviously we should do that to save the money and actually enable more people to go to Mars.”

Of course, there are problems with having too many launches for a mission. More in-space assembly of parts adds complexity to an already complex task. Plus it creates more opportunity for a launch to go wrong, and one flight’s failure can throw off the entire operation. Of course there are benefits to this model, too. For instance, the more a vehicle flies, the more reliable it becomes. And the more frequently rockets fly, the faster you can get hardware into space.Yet even NASA doesn’t expect to do a Mars mission with just one launch of the SLS. Last month, Gerstenmaier presented a tentative outline of all the launches the space agency hopes to do before sending people to Mars. The plan involves building an outpost around the Moon, where future astronauts can live and train for deep-space missions. Eventually, astronauts will leave from this site to go onto Mars. But in order to build this station near the Moon, pieces of it will have to launch on at least four flights of the SLS, and then even more launches will be needed to deliver the transport vehicle that will take astronauts to the Red Planet.

But for NASA, a more efficient solution may reveal itself in the coming years: break those launches up even further and use cheaper rockets. “As the private industry shows itself to be more and more capable, it may become obvious that NASA… will save so much money launching [hardware] in smaller pieces and putting everything together in space,” says Muncy.Source: The Verve

SpaceX Plans To Send Tourists Around The Moon In 2018

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Here’s Why That May Not Happen – SpaceX recently announced plans to send two space tourists around the Moon next year. The audacious, week-long flight would take place using a Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft and be the first time humans have been beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972.

Some media outlets have compared the mission to Apollo 8, humanity’s first crewed mission to lunar space, which happened in 1968. In terms of traveling to a vantage point where Earth is a small blue-and-white orb dangling in the darkness of space, that’s certainly true. Apollo 8, however, slowed down and entered orbit, whereas the Crew Dragon would use a “free-return” trajectory, whipping around the far side of the Moon to slingshot back toward Earth.

A more accurate mission comparison, therefore, is Apollo 13. After an oxygen tank explosion crippled the spacecraft of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise during a trip to the Moon in 1970, NASA had to abort the mission. Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to turn around when you’re halfway between the Earth and the Moon, traveling 11 kilometers per second; the only option is to use the free-return maneuver.

It’s hard to say whether these two SpaceX customers could work themselves out of an Apollo 13-esque crisis. They have asked not to be identified; all we can really say about them is that they must have a lot of money. SpaceX isn’t saying how much the duo will pay for tickets, but some available cost comparisons include the amount tourists have paid to fly on Russian rockets (at least $20 million), the average cost of a SpaceX or Boeing seat to ship an astronaut to the ISS ($58 million, according to one report), and the amount NASA currently pays Russia for Soyuz seats ($80 million).

Risk and price tag aside, what are the chances SpaceX can actually pull off this bold mission in 2018? Not good—and here’s why. A quick analysis of past announcements shows SpaceX misses major milestones by about 2 years. SpaceX is well-known for its ambitious timelines. To be fair, they’re in good company on this front: many spaceflight firms, and also NASA, are similarly guilty of underestimating how long major projects will take.

That’s why NASA’s science programs—and more recently, its human spaceflight programs—use a metric called the Joint Confidence Level, or JCL, to calculate the odds something will be delivered on time based on available funding levels. In short, NASA doesn’t commit to a launch date until a JCL analysis says there’s a 70 percent chance it will hold. An analysis of SpaceX’s past press releases and official statements to determine the average delay time for major milestones revealed that on average, SpaceX misses publicly stated deadlines by an average of 2.1 years.

Here’s the dataset. Some well-known examples of these delays include the first crewed Dragon flight (originally promised in 2014, but yet to occur) and the Falcon Heavy (originally promised for 2013 or 2014, but yet to launch). Again, to be fair, an analysis of other new space companies or NASA would likely turn up similar results. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

The Government Accountability Office thinks SpaceX may not be certified for International Space Station crew rotation flights until 2019. On February 16, the GAO released a report saying SpaceX and Boeing might not be certified to fly ISS crews until 2019. Before NASA signs off on SpaceX for astronaut transportation, the company must conduct two demo flights of its new Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The first will be an uncrewed test flight, which SpaceX expects to occur in November. The second will take place with two astronauts, and SpaceX says the mission will be ready to fly in May 2018. The GAO is skeptical of those dates.  Among the reasons: SpaceX plans to make two more upgrades to the Falcon 9 this year, before showing NASA the rocket’s design is finalized and stable—prior to the November uncrewed test flight.

There’s also an ongoing debate about the company’s plan to fuel the rocket with astronauts aboard, and questions about the significance and mitigation of cracks found in Falcon 9 engine turbines. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently told reporters at Kennedy Space Center she was confident the first crew flight would occur in 2018. If that happens in May as scheduled, NASA certification could come between July and September, followed by the first official ISS crew rotation flight.

Where, exactly, the Moon tourist mission would fit in to that schedule is unclear, considering the company has a backlog of other missions to fly after last year’s launch pad explosion. In theory, SpaceX could proceed with the flight anytime—it’s just a question of whether they are potentially willing to risk looking bad in the context of their NASA partnership.

Flying tourists after the first paid ISS crew rotation flight would seem to be the most prudent; NASA has been without the capability to launch its own astronauts since the space shuttle retired in 2011.

NASA made a big bet on commercial crew providers after canceling the Constellation program in 2010. As of last year, NASA still provides the bulk of SpaceX’s revenue, and in Monday’s announcement, SpaceX went out of its way to thank the agency for shouldering most of the development cost of Crew Dragon. NASA, meanwhile, has been forced to lay the groundwork for using Russian rockets to reach the ISS in 2019 (ironically, the seats are being purchased through Boeing) in the event SpaceX and Boeing crew flights are delayed further.

The current record for introducing a new launch vehicle and subsequently using it to fly humans to the Moon is 13 months. SpaceX has about 18. The Crew Dragon tourist flight requires the Falcon Heavy, which is expected to make its first test flight this summer. That gives SpaceX a maximum of 18 months to hit its 2018 deadline.

The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket operating since the Saturn V, which debuted during Apollo 4 in November 1967. That flight sent an uncrewed Apollo capsule to an altitude of 17,300 kilometers, causing it to slam back into the atmosphere at 11.1 kilometers per second, putting the capsule’s heat shield through the same stresses it would encounter upon returning from the Moon. In December 1968, 13 months later, the first crewed Saturn V flight sent Apollo 8 to lunar orbit.

Unlike Apollo 8, SpaceX’s tourists won’t need the capability to slow down and enter lunar orbit, and then speed up again to come home—so that simplifies things. But it also doesn’t sound like SpaceX is planning to make a high-velocity Crew Dragon test flight. By the end of 2018, the spacecraft may have returned from low-Earth orbit a couple times, but those reentries will have been slower—about 7.7 kilometers per second.

All in all, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and SpaceX isn’t providing more details.

The first hint of this announcement came on Sunday, Feb. 26, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted “SpaceX announcement tomorrow at 1pm PST.” On Monday, 1:00 p.m. came and went, and at about 1:25 pm, a flood of tweets from various media outlets broke the Moon mission news. SpaceX released a brief written statement a few minutes later. It was soon revealed that a select group of reporters had been invited to attend a press teleconference with Musk. The call was apparently brief, lasting less than a half hour.

It’s not uncommon for organizations, both private and public, to control the flow of information by preferring certain media outlets over others. NASA, however, makes their briefings publicly available—even though not everyone gets a chance to ask questions, everyone gets to hear what others are asking. Additionally, NASA public affairs officers generally work with reporters to answer follow-up questions (even if the answers turn out to be non-answers).

The Planetary Society sent an email to SpaceX about all this, asking if they’d consider inviting more reporters to their briefings—even with less-preferred outlets in a listen-only mode—or whether they had an audio recording of the most recent teleconference, or whether they’d be willing to answer a few written questions about the Moon mission. The answer was no.

Which beckons the premise of this article: Based solely on publicly available facts, it seems unlikely this mission will happen in 2018. Objectively speaking, SpaceX has revolutionized the launch industry. They have made incredible leaps forward in technology while re-energizing the world about spaceflight in a way that NASA has, in some ways, failed to do. They broke the monopoly on launching classified U.S. payloads. They may one day send humans to Mars.

For a space company that has only been around for 15 years, that’s extraordinarily impressive. But in terms of media relations and gut-checking ambitious timelines, there’s always room for improvement.Source: The Planetary Society


NASA Likely to Break Radiation Rules to Go to Mars

NASA’s biggest obstacle to sending humans to Mars may not be related to line items in budgets, but to the safety of the astronauts themselves. Despite having sent humans into space for nearly 55 years, NASA doesn’t quite understand what risks the radiation out there poses. More importantly, the agency doesn’t know exactly how to manage those risks—and it might not be able to.

Space radiation presents the tallest hurdle to NASA’s future travel plans that extend beyond low-Earth orbit and for periods longer than a year. On the International Space Station, astronauts are bombarded with 10 times as much radiation as they experience on Earth in a given period; on Mars, they will encounter 100 times the terrestrial dose.

When NASA sends astronauts on its planned two-year-long Martian trip, they’re probably going to break their own rules about radiation exposure, which already set limits above those for most workers here on Earth. As a report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General put it, “Based on current knowledge, astronauts on a mission to Mars would exceed NASA’s career radiation dosage limits. Although the Agency plans to continue efforts to develop countermeasures to address the radiation risk, NASA is likely to seek an exception from the current standards for those that cannot be fully mitigated.”

12 Month Study

NASA’s understanding of the effects of long-term exposure to radiation in deep space is still in flux. While the government has been concerned with radiation hazards on a potential Mars mission since going to the fourth planet became a goal, it wasn’t until November 2012 that they realized they had the opportunity to perform a controlled experiment on humans, looking at the effects of space radiation.

NASA was set to announce that astronaut Scott Kelly would go to the Space Station for 12 months, to participate in the agency’s aptly named One Year Mission. The plan was to send an American astronaut—Kelly—and a Russian cosmonaut—Mikhail Kornienko—to orbit for twice as long as most space-farers, and then study the physiological and psychological effects of the trip. The results would help space agencies prepare for longer-term space missions like the planned journey to Mars.

The day before the press conference, NASA officials met to help Kelly prep. At the very end of the gathering, as everyone was shuffling papers and standing up to leave, someone asked, “Hey, are we doing anything with the twins?”

By this, they meant Kelly’s gene-sharing, same-aged brother, Mark Kelly—who had also spent time in the astronaut corps.

“No, that would just be a stunt,” said John Charles, head of the One Year Mission. “We’re not going to do anything.”

But as people began to file out of the room, Mike Barrett—Charles’s boss and manager of NASA Human Research Program—stopped Charles and said, “Not so fast.”

And soon, they sat down and made a plan for the “Twins Study,” mapping out research that would be good for more than just publicity: a formal project to compare how the bodily and brainy functions of Mark—living, as Charles says, “la vida loca” as a retiree in Tucson—and Kelly—living in space. Scientists would study how the characteristics of a claustrophobic space environment—the lack of gravity, the astronaut ice cream, the serotonin-boosting view out the window, the cortisol of launch, the screwed-up sleep schedule—contributed to any differences between the two men’s biology. “Our experiments are not clean. They are a juxtaposition of all these stressors,” Charles says. “We, being rocket scientists, try to figure out which phenomenon is related to which stressor.”

And perhaps the biggest body-stressing difference between Earth and orbit is the amount of bombarding radiation.

“Like Cellophane”

Radiation is the catch-all term for high-energy particles like protons and nuclei that can tear into human microanatomy. A few different kinds of radiation exist under that umbrella: the radiation that’s trapped by the Earth’s protective electromagnetic shield; the radiation that comes from the Sun; the radiation that comes from deep space, like supernova explosions; and the secondary radiation that is spawned when, say, a supernova particle smashes into some other matter, like a spacecraft hull or an astronaut’s head.

The Earth-trapped radiation and the particles that fly from our star don’t pose huge problems, because the former is localized and the latter doesn’t have much energy (comparatively). But those deep space particles, more formally called “galactic cosmic radiation”—watch out, journeyers.

“They rip through you like you’re cellophane,” says biomedical and health informaticist Dan Masys of the University of Washington. Engineers haven’t yet found a way to protect astronauts’ fragile, cellophane selves against such bombardment.

NASA sets its own thresholds for how much radiation is too much, but that wasn’t always true. Astronauts used to fall into the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “radiation workers” category, like pilots and people who work at nuclear reactors. OSHA places caps on the particles a worker can encounter and, on top of that, demands that organizations keep exposure “as low as reasonably achievable.” They call this the ALARA Principle.

But today, ALARA is the only principle by which NASA abides. Terrestrial radiation worker limits proved too low for celestial employees, so OSHA gave NASA a waiver, allowing the agency to create its own guidelines. OSHA’s limits don’t apply anymore. NASA’s Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer now sets the limits, which say that an astronaut’s exposure to radiation shouldn’t increase their risk of death from cancer by more than 3%. Yet that same office will grant new exceptions if trips beyond low-Earth orbit will put astronauts at radiative risk greater than what’s now allowed, as the agency suspects they will.

“It Depends”

NASA’s current chief medical officer is J.D. Polk. And Polk tells me that while some other space agencies lay down a blanket radiation limit—saying none of their employees can exceed a set and static dose—NASA doesn’t. Instead, the agency takes an astronaut’s age and sex into account. Women have higher cancer risk because of their breasts, ovaries, and uteri; they also have an unexplained increased risk of radiation-induced lung cancer. Their limits, then, are lower than men’s.

The older someone is, the less a doped-up dose means to them. “If I expose a 55-year-old astronaut to radiation and they have 20–30 years in which that radiation exposure might produce a cancer, that’s a different risk than if I expose a 30-year-old to that same radiation,” Polk says. “So if you ask what the NASA career limit is, the answer is, ‘It depends.’ ”

And if you ask whether NASA would be willing to break its cancer-focused career limits to go forward with a big-picture space mission, the answer is maybe.

But the trouble is that the radiation problem isn’t limited to cancer, something which NASA acknowledges. They have it all laid out in a set of thirty-plus “Evidence Reports on Human Health Risks” that are produced by their Human Research Program and reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, which selects independent experts to assess the quality and rigor of NASA’s work.

Masys is one of those experts. This year, he was the vice-chair of the committee that prepared the fourth of five such assessments, one slated to come out each year from 2014–2018. Each addresses a subset of the tens of evidence reports, which deal with everything from sleep loss to habitat design to the microbiome to nutrition. Much of this year’s analysis dealt with radiation reports. Masys says that, so far, NASA hasn’t been surprised by anything the committee has said—“other than their mild surprise that we have anchored radiation as the deal breaker,” he says. “It is the showstopper for what NASA calls exploration-class missions.”

Masys doesn’t use the words “deal breaker” and “showstopper” lightly. According to NASA’s reports and the Academy’s evaluation, cancer-inducing radiation can also cause cardiovascular and degenerative diseases—like cataracts, premature aging, and endocrine problems—a risk “of much greater concern than previously believed.” It can also rejigger the central nervous system, screwing with everything from cognition to spatial perception to hand-eye coordination. Then there’s the infertility, the cataracts, the slow wound healing, and the problems that astronauts could pass on to future children if they make it back from the long trip to Mars and manage to procreate.

For several of these medical matters, scientists don’t understand the underlying mechanisms. And so far, their research into those mechanisms, and their manifestations, has mostly involved the low-energy particles from Earth or near-space—not the high-energy cosmic rays from farther off—and radiation exposure that falls in one fell swoop, like the swoop of a nuclear bomb. Often, too, researchers base their conclusions on animal models that they haven’t translated to humans. Both NASA’s and the Academy’s documents say that long-term missions will be radiation-risky for the foreseeable future—maybe forever.

“For as long as there have been catalogs of health effects, radiation has been the most intractable, most severe, hardest problem to solve,” Masys says. “Now, 20 or more years into advances in space technology and propulsion and systems and vehicles, radiation is still the deal breaker. It has never changed.”

Engineering Solutions?

NASA has been hard at work on the problem. The agency is attempting to determine how radiation might impact crewed Mars missions with research projects like the Twins Study and the One Year Mission, with on-the-ground facilities like the Space Radiation Laboratory, and with biology research in laboratories. But they are also hoping to engineer ways to decrease exposure.

“We talk about time, distance, and shielding,” Polk says. If the agency creates faster rockets, astronauts can spend less time in transit. They can time trips for low-emission points in the solar cycle that also put Earth close to Mars. And then they can build better barriers between astronauts and space. Perhaps advances in nano- or materials science will bring a lightweight, launch-friendly material that efficiently traps the offending particles before they slam through skin. Medical types could also develop drugs that undo or protect against bodily harm when particles do slam into skin. But none of those are reality yet.

“NASA, as a future-thinking engineering organization, believes they will find a solution,” Masys says. “And so the real issue is, well, how soon? They would be the first to tell you there is not a solution in hand right now.”

In the future, when NASA is actually making deep-space trips, engineers and biologists will likely have better tools on hand. But will those tools allow NASA to abide by its astronaut-protecting guidelines? Or will the agency alter the guidelines for the good of human exploration?

It’s a burden that NASA has to bear, but one the private space industry doesn’t have to bother with. If Elon Musk wanted to send someone to Mars tomorrow, radiation guidelines probably wouldn’t stop him.

Private space companies like Musk’s SpaceX fall under the watchful eyes of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration. Crew members—employees of the space tourism company—will be protected by OSHA regulations. But occupational standards don’t apply to the passengers, who are not working for SpaceX or whoever else flies beyond the atmosphere, or for the federal government. As Alyssa Megan Sieffert, now an attorney-advisor at NASA’s Office of the Inspector General, wrote in the journal The SciTech Lawyer, “Nonemployees are likely to be exempt from dose limitations.” They could, potentially, endure as much radiation as they want. If Musk wanted to send a remotely operated, fully-tourist trip to Mars—as with the two tourists he’s sending around the Moon in 2019—he just could, as long as he informed them all the radiation wasn’t good for them.

The way the law works, the Secretary of Transportation cannot create preventative regulations that would stop the first rich tourist from dying of cosmos-caused cancer or cardiovascular disease while cataracts cloud their eyes. As the code says, regulations issued by the secretary “shall…be limited to restricting or prohibiting design features or operating practices that…have resulted in a serious or fatal injury…during a licensed or permitted commercial human space flight; or contributed to an unplanned event or series of events during a licensed or permitted commercial human space flight that posed a high risk of causing a serious or fatal injury.” In other words, only once something goes wrong in commercial spaceflight can the Secretary bring into being a new safety regulation to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

No Easy Task

Research like the Twins Study will help medical types determine the effects and ethics of that rule-breaking. NASA released the radiation data from the Kelly Study to researchers on February 28. “They’re just now opening those files up,” Charles says.

Figuring out how radiation affected Scott Kelly’s corporeality—and how it didn’t—won’t be easy. “This is not like Bones or CSI,” Charles says. “You don’t pick up a cigarette butt and put it in your whizmo machine.”

Regardless of the findings, though, of these or future studies, astronauts like Kelly would probably always raise their hands to go, whether it was strictly good for them or not. “Astronauts are a risk-taking group. That’s part of their persona,” Masys says. “The agency has to have a more prudent approach to risk than the astronauts themselves.”

We Should Explore Mars So Students Will Keep Dreaming Big

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We must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

Why send humans to Mars? Because as Gene Roddenberry said, “We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are.” As a space science educator, a lover of Star Trek, and someone who played “astronaut” on the playground, sending humans to Mars is more than just a good sci-fi fantasy, it is an imperative for humanity.  Mars is the first outpost in the colonization of other worlds. And thanks to countless orbiters, landers, and rovers… the more we learn about it, the more Mars beckons.

For the past 16 years, I have endeavored to find ways to connect students’ natural curiosity with the wonders of our solar system and the universe, and always with an eye looking back at Earth. As a STEM/STEAM educator, I believe that we must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

Listen to any scientist, engineer or entrepreneurial visionary who is passionate and committed about going to Mars and you will see that the parallels between a human endeavor to Mars and an education that elevates STEM/STEAM skills are remarkably similar. Getting to Mars and creating a skilled labor force for our nation is all about building with the same organic material. And I am not talking about aluminum, steel or titanium. I am talking about the robust material of minds… young, brilliant, future scientific and engineering minds.

Howard Bloom, founder, and chair of the Space Development Steering Committee says it this way: “Rockets roar into space using two forms of fuel.  One is the liquid in the rocket’s tanks.  The other is the fuel in the human heart.  Yes, big dreams are fueled by the raw stuff of the human spirit:  excitement, awe, and desire.  Those emotions power us to do the impossible.  So when you’re looking for a goal, find the one that excites you and your fellow humans the most.”

And what is more exciting than the possibility of donning your spacesuit and hopping in a rocket headed roughly 140 million miles away from Earth to solve mysteries awaiting and to make discoveries on the Red Planet that are yearning to be known?

All you have to do is introduce students to Mars and the possibility of going there, have them imagine walking on its surface, invite them to think about how to make the planet habitable, and you’ll have students leaning forward, asking questions, and getting curious. Ask, did life arise independently on Mars and then fall into total extinction or does some tiny remnant remain in the water ice of a deep martian crater? Conversations, hypotheses, and scientific investigation will then commence.  Let students know that the best explorers aren’t rovers but humans, and how what takes a rover weeks to analyze could be done by human hands and minds in mere hours. As they ruminate on the fact that the finest computer ever built sits atop their shoulders,  show them Ray Bradbury’s, The Martian Chronicles, and amazing space illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep. Watch as they become enthralled with Mars.  It is an inspiration by visual stimuli. Then ask the students to write, draw, graph, or calculate their version of what a 21st-century manned mission to Mars would be like, and there will be a virtual martian dust storm of ideas.

A brilliant girl named Resaiah heard me say in a presentation that twelve men had walked on the Moon, but no women. The next day she handed me a story she had written called “Astronaut World.” In it, she wrote about a future mission when the people of Earth landed on Mars and a woman named Resaiah took her first bold steps on the martian surface. This young student had a moment of engagement and an experience of wonder, and she used creativity to envision herself in the future. As Socrates once said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

In May, at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C, scouts from the area were invited to attend a workshop to imagine and create their version of a settlement on Mars. Later that evening, three scouts (average age 11) came on stage and in great detail shared everything from how they were going to melt the polar ice caps, to where they would store the water, to how they would use greenhouses to grow food, to the underground tunnels they would build to traverse between habitats to avoid the harsh effects of radiation, to where they would park their rovers: creative enough to imagine to be the ones who will first step foot on Martian soil.

Many challenge the expense of a human Mars mission when Earth already has so many problems.  But where would we be without the knowledge developed by America’s space program in the past 50 years? GPS, better robotics for human prostheses, nanotechnology, smartphones and the list goes on. Kaci Heins, Education Supervisor for Space Center Houston, says, “We must go to learn the story of Mars and to push the next level of science, technology, engineering, and math. It is problem-solving some of the toughest challenges humans can face in a relentlessly harsh environment.”  When we address the challenges related to human space missions, we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster collaborations beyond our borders. Furthermore, the knowledge and innovations created for human survival on Mars will present solutions to solve problems and challenges we humans face here on Earth such as food insecurity, water shortages, alternative energy/fuel sources, among much else.

And that’s what makes Mars such an effective STEM/STEAM tool. Communicating the thrill of exploration is as good as it gets when educating students about what a future on Mars might entail. Curiosity is in our DNA. We humans have always been driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technological limits, and then push further. There is an insatiable thirst of the soul to challenge the confines of what we know and the only way for human exploration on Mars to be a reality is if we inspire the students of today to be the scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, mathematicians, programmers and astronauts of tomorrow. We must set our course for Mars, and we must do it now.

Ask the man for whom Pluto was his goal for 25 years, “Why Mars?” and Alan Stern, Chief Principal Investigator of the New Horizons Mission, will tell you, “Because the world needs new frontiers, because humans are explorers, and because kids of every generation need role models and inspiration. Why Mars? Because it will bring out the best in our species.”

This piece is part of a special op-ed series, curated in partnership with Explore Mars, in which contributors from diverse fields such as science, education, policy, business and culture answer a simple question: “Why Mars?” For more, follow the links below or visit  Source: Huff Post

Jeff Bezos explains why he passed up a moon trip

Jeff Bezos and Alan Boyle

Billionaire Jeff Bezos watches a replay of a New Shepard suborbital test flight with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. (Credit: Tom Kimmell Photography, Courtesy of the Space Foundation)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his chance to go into space in a Russian Soyuz capsule – and not just into space, but around the moon. But he says he’d rather taste the final frontier in a spaceship built by his own company, Blue Origin.

Bezos touched on what it would take for spaceflight, including what he’s done to prepare for the experience, during my informal chat with him in front of hundreds of attendees here today at the 32nd Space Symposium.

The Blue Origin space venture was created back in 2000, six years after Bezos founded Amazon, so that he could pursue his childhood dream of going into outer space – a dream that goes back to watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Bezos noted that his high-school girlfriend, Ursula Werner, has been quoted as saying Amazon exists “solely to create money for Blue Origin.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” he joked.

But he did confirm that he’s undergone some training for spaceflight – not under zero-G conditions in an airplane, as many people have done, but in a centrifuge at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “If you’re subject to motion sickness, you might not want to do that,” he said.

He has also tested the seats that will be installed in Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship. New Shepard already has gone through three successful space launches and landings during autonomous test flights.

If the schedule proceeds as Bezos hopes it does, test passengers will soar to the edge of space in the New Shepard from Blue Origin’s launch facility in Texas starting next year. That would set the stage for paying passengers to get on board as early as 2018. The price of a ticket has not yet been set.

Another player in the suborbital space tourism market, Virgin Galactic, is just starting to test its second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane – more than a year after the first plane broke up during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot.

Even though it’s not clear exactly when Virgin Galactic will begin commercial spaceflights, the company has about 700 customers who are paying as much as $250,000 for a spot on the passenger list. Many of those would-be spacefliers have gone through zero-gravity airplane flights as well as centrifuge training.

Bezos said passengers won’t need a lot of training for the 11- to 12-minute flight they’ll take on Blue Origin’s vertical-launch-and-landing spaceship.

“For the suborbital mission, training is going to be relatively simple,” he said. “One of the things that you have to do is emergency egress, so we’ll train people for that. One of the things you’ll have to be able to do is get out of your seat, and get back into your seat. We want people to be able to get out, float around, do somersaults, enjoy the microgravity, look out those beautiful windows.”

Would Bezos go? Absolutely, as long as it’s in his own spaceship.

“I want to go into space, but I want to do it in Blue Origin vehicles,” he told me. “Even though I do want to go into space, as a personal thing … it’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is lowering the cost of access to space.”

Several millionaires have purchased trips on Russian Soyuz capsules to the International Space Station and back, for tens of millions of dollars. Seattle software billionaire Charles Simonyi enjoyed the first trip in 2007 so much that he bought a second ride through Space Adventures in 2009.

Bezos said he was approached about going on a Soyuz as well. “I’m definitely in their target market,” he quipped.

At one point, he was offered a flight around the moon at a premium price.

“The Soyuz is theoretically designed to do a lunar flyby and then re-enter,” he said. “So I looked at this, and it was expensive. Like $200 million or something. I said, ‘Yeah, but has it ever been tested?’ And they were like, ‘Well, no.’”

“Isn’t that a little risky?” Bezos recalled asking. “Well, for $400 million, we’ll test it for you,” came the reply. “Maybe I’ll wait on that one,” Bezos said with his signature laugh.

Complex life may have come and gone in Earth’s distant past

A 1.9-billion-year-old stromatolite — or mound made by microbes that lived shallow water — called the Gunflint Formation in northern Minnesota. The environment of the oxygen

This is a 1.9-billion-year-old stromatolite — or mound made by microbes that lived in shallow water — called the Gunflint Formation in northern Minnesota. The environment of the oxygen “overshoot” described in research by Michael Kipp, Eva Stüeken and Roger Buick may have included this sort of oxygen-rich setting that is suitable for complex life.Eva Stüeken

Conditions suitable to support complex life may have developed in Earth’s oceans — and then faded — more than a billion years before life truly took hold, a new University of Washington-led study has found. The findings, based on using the element selenium as a tool to measure oxygen in the distant past, may also benefit the search for signs of life beyond Earth.

In a paper published Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Michael Kipp, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences, analyzed isotopic ratios of the element selenium in sedimentary rocks to measure the presence of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere between 2 and 2.4 billion years ago.

Kipp’s UW coauthors are former Earth and space sciences postdoctoral researcher Eva Stüeken — now a faculty member at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland — and professor Roger Buick, who is also a faculty member with the UW Astrobiology Program. Their other coauthor is Andrey Bekker of the University of California, Riverside, whose original hypothesis this work helps confirm, the researchers said.

“There is fossil evidence of complex cells that go back maybe 1 ¾ billion years,” said Buick. “But the oldest fossil is not necessarily the oldest one that ever lived – because the chances of getting preserved as a fossil are pretty low.

“This research shows that there was enough oxygen in the environment to have allowed complex cells to have evolved, and to have become ecologically important, before there was fossil evidence.” He added, “That doesn’t mean that they did — but they could have.”

Kipp and Stüeken learned this by analyzing selenium traces in pieces of sedimentary shale from the particular time periods using mass spectrometry in the UW Isotope Geochemistry Lab, to discover if selenium had been changed by the presence of oxygen, or oxidized. Oxidized selenium compounds can then get reduced, causing a shift in the isotopic ratios which gets recorded in the rocks. The abundance of selenium also increases in the rocks when lots of oxygen is present.

Buick said it was previously thought that oxygen on Earth had a history of “none, then some, then a lot. But what it looks like now is, there was a period of a quarter of a billion years or so where oxygen came quite high, and then sunk back down again.”

The oxygen’s persistence over a long stretch of time is an important factor, Kipp stressed: “Whereas before and after maybe there were transient environments that could have occasionally supported these organisms, to get them to evolve and be a substantial part of the ecosystem, you need oxygen to persist for a long time.”

Stüeken said such an oxygen increase has been guessed at previously, but it was unclear how widespread it was. This research creates a clearer picture of what this oxygen “overshoot” looked like: “That it was moderately significant in the atmosphere and surface ocean – but not at all in the deep ocean.”

What caused oxygen levels to soar this way only to crash just as dramatically?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Stüeken said. “It’s unknown why it happened, and why it ended.”

“It is an unprecedented time in Earth’s history,” Buick said. “If you look at the selenium isotope record through time, it’s a unique interval. If you look before and after, everything’s different.”

The use of selenium — named after the Greek word for moon — as an effective tool to probe oxygen levels in deep time could also be helpful in the search for oxygen — and so perhaps life — beyond Earth, the researchers said.

Future generations of space-based telescopes, they note, will give astronomers information about the atmospheric composition of distant planets. Some of these could be approximately Earth-sized and potentially have appreciable atmospheric oxygen.

“The recognition of an interval in Earth’s distant past that may have had near-modern oxygen levels, but far different biological inhabitants, could mean that the remote detection of an oxygen-rich world is not necessarily proof of a complex biosphere,” Kipp said.

Buick concluded, “This is a new way of measuring oxygen in a planet’s historical past, to see whether complex life could have evolved there and persisted long enough to evolve into intelligent beings.” The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the NASA Astrobiology Institute and Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Scientists Find A New Way To See Inside Black Holes

Scientists at Towson University and the Johns Hopkins University are reporting a new way to peer through the event horizons around black holes and visualize what lies beneath. Their results could rewrite conventional ideas about the internal structure of spinning black holes. Current approaches use special coordinate systems in which this structure appears quite simple, but quantities that depend on an observer’s choice of coordinates can give a distorted view of reality, as anyone knows who has compared the size of Greenland and the USA on a map.

The new approach focuses exclusively on mathematical quantities known as invariants, which have the same value for any choice of coordinates. Expressed in terms of these quantities, black hole interiors reveal a much more intricate and complicated structure than usually thought, with wild variations in curvature from place to place.

These new findings are timely for two reasons, according to Towson University’s Kielan Wilcomb, who presented the team’s results yesterday at the 228th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego. First, 2016 is the centennial year of the publication of the theory that first predicted the existence of black holes: Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Second, the existence of these objects is no longer a matter of theory, but observational fact. Last September astronomers at the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory detected the first ripples in spacetime from a collision between giant black holes in a distant galaxy.

But while we now know they exist, we will never be able to look inside them, notes team member James Overduin, also of Towson University, since no information can emerge from beyond a black hole’s event horizon. Their interiors are, by definition, places that can only be explored mathematically. The new results are thus important in a unique sense. Scientists usually observe first, and then attempt to classify and understand their observations using theory. With black holes this usual course of discovery is reversed: we have a satisfactory theory, but are still groping for the best way to visualize it.

The physical significance of the curvature invariants calculated by Wilcomb, Overduin and Richard C. Henry of the Johns Hopkins University is not yet clear. For the most general black holes (those with mass, spin and electric charge) there are seventeen of these quantities altogether, but they can be related to each other mathematically so that only five are truly independent. Explicit mathematical expressions for some are presented here for the first time. The simplest, known as the Ricci scalar, lies at the heart of general relativity theory. Another, the Weyl invariant, plays an analogous role in one of the few serious alternatives to Einstein’s theory, known as conformal gravity. For black holes with no electric charge (as expected for the vast majority of real, astrophysical black holes, since they will tend to neutralize themselves with time) this invariant is equivalent to another quantity known as the Kretschmann scalar.

The team’s results confirm that the wild fluctuations in the value of this quantity near the singularity inside a spinning black hole include regions of negative curvature, which are associated physically with a phenomenon known as gravitomagnetism (the gravitational analog of ordinary magnetism). Gravitomagnetic fields, fed by rotational energy, are believed to be responsible for generating the tremendous jets which emanate from the poles of supermassive black holes at the centers of some galaxies. A clearer map of curvature inside the horizon, Henry emphasizes, could enable astronomers to understand why such jets exist in some galaxies and not others (including our own).


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