Category: space

SpaceX Starlink Overview 2021

SpaceX is building Starlink Satellite network to meet the global demand for low-cost, high speed internet.

Latest updates: 1/20/21 – SpaceX launched their 17th Starlink mission from the Cape Canaveral base in Florida, sending 60 more satellites into outer space.

Starlink Key Takeaways:

  • 41.3% of the world doesn’t have access to the internet. Starlink is solving this problem.
    • Fast satellite internet will create opportunities for people when they join the internet for the first time.
  • Starlink adds about 60 satellites to the network per launch. They will soon use Starship to increase this number.
  • Speed: 50 – 150Mbps, latency of 20-40 ms
  • Cost: $99 / month + one-time fee of $499.

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If you live in a remote or rural area, there’s a good chance you might have a difficult time connecting to the internet. This is because service providers have not installed as much infrastructure. With fewer cell towers and ground lines in less populated areas, internet connectivity may be limited.

One way around this is to get satellite internet, which allows data transfer between a ground receiver and a network of satellites in orbit around planet Earth.

satellite internet tiktok comment

The only problem is, it’s not that good. According to a comment on TikTok, current satellite internet could be better.

Because of this, there is market demand for better access to satellite connectivity. A number of companies have recognized this and are working on developing more reliable global broadband.

In a rush to capitalize on the opportunity, SpaceX Starlink has been quite active in deploying satellites to meet this need.

What is Starlink?

SpaceX is sending satellites into orbit (called Starlink), which will bring internet access to remote areas of the globe where there’s no connectivity. Its important to note that the service will work best in areas where population density is low, where smaller clusters of people are attempting to access data at any given time.

starlink satellite network
Starlink global network. Can’t help but think of Skynet from the Terminator? Source: Mark Handley/University College London

SpaceX currently has plans to launch thousands of satellites (at least 12,000) into orbit to meet economic demand for low cost global broadband. By providing global broadband service to clients via satellite, SpaceX plans to use the revenue generated to fund R&D, space missions, sending humans to Mars, and completing Starship development for high-speed Earth to Earth commercial air travel.

Starlink will reportedly build gigabit speed satellite internet for the US and Canada.

The company has anticipated near global coverage for the populated world by 2021. However, the completion of Starlink is estimated to take 10 years and cost $2B.

During launch, the satellites are efficiently packed into the Falcon 9 spaceship. They are designed to be small and fit together seamlessly like folding chairs for easy storage. Each weighs about 260kg. A typical shipment of 60 satellites means a payload of at least 34,392 lbs – over 17 tons.

The company publishes videos of these satellite launches on YouTube, which happen every few weeks. They typically deploy 40-60 satellites per launch.

Initial Beta Release

Starlink initial beta release happened on October 27, 2020. The day before that, on October 26, 2020, the Starlink app was published to the Apple App Store as well as Android, which allows users to setup and monitor their satellite internet.

After opening the app, it prompts you to go outside and point your phone up at the sky, in an area without any trees or powerlines obstructing the view. Apparently after doing this, you can begin the process of setup.

Although anyone can download the app, unfortunately, only a select few customers have been invited to serve as Beta testers.

Reddit user FourthEchelon19 was one of those select people, who get to try it out first. They discussed this on the subreddit r/Starlink. They were also was kind enough to include a screenshot of the invitation email from Starlink, which is below.

starlink beta tester email via reddit
Source: reddit

The company will be sending these few initial users a kit that includes a satellite receiver, router, etc., which will be required in order to access the internet through Starlink.

Starlink Speed and Cost

There will be an expected latency between 20 – 40 ms, there has been nothing reported about data caps.

The capacity for data transfer is not yet at gigabit levels, the initial version will be have estimated speeds of 50 – 150Mbps, which is significantly slower than your typical at-home wifi service from a company like Xfinity or AT&T.

The internet service plan is subscription based, costing $99 / month, with a one-time fee of $499 for a phased array antenna (satellite receiver) and router.

Users will have to purchase and setup the hardware themselves, which is included in the $499 initial fee.

starlink router and antenna
Starlink at-home architecture diagram.
Source: Starlink iOS app

How does Starlink work?

Each satellite is orbiting Earth, which means it is in a perpetual freefall at over 7.8 km/s (17,000 mph), with the force of gravity causing centripetal acceleration. Most of the satellites are located in low earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of roughly 1100 km. LEO is the ideal distance because this allows for a stronger signal on the ground.

Old model for satellite internet (source: Viasat)

Located 1100 km above sea level this is much lower than the old model where a small number (3) of expensive, high orbiting, geostationary satellites were located 35786 km above Earth, each providing coverage to roughly a third of the globe. Geostationary orbit means rotating at the same speed as Earth, moving at a speed of 3 km/s.

The new satellite model: Starlink will use a tight network of over 4000 satellites.

Being closer to the ground in LEO is advantageous because of the shorter distance the signal has to travel, thus lower latency.

Starlink is closer to the Earth and therefore has to travel faster to maintain obit. (7.8 km/s in LEO, orbits Earth once every 90 minutes. This is similar to the International Space Station.

One of the technical challenges with the satellites moving so quickly that that they are difficult to track via ground stations. There has to be some way for the ground station to rapidly switch communication between different satellites in the network as they move.

Optical communication. source: JAXA

Satellites will be able to optical communication (via light) between each other within line-of site – as long as they aren’t over the horizon.

Speed of light is faster in the vacuum of space, which means inter-satellite data transfer speeds will be extremely fast.

They are using a hall-effect thruster, which, according to Elon Musk, is not that hard to build

Each Starlink satellite has its own solar panel for energy and communicates with ground stations.

Space Debris

To avoid collisions with debris and other objects in space, the satellites use data from the US Department of Defense debris tracking system, to autonomously move around and orient themselves via hall-effect ion thrusters.

Fortunately, there are not a lot of other satellites or debris in low Earth orbit. Starlink’s main objective in this regard is to avoid contributing to the space debris. Once a satellite reaches the end of its usable life, it will de-orbit, burning up on re-entry. It will disintegrate quickly once it is in the presence of air friction in the atmosphere.

So far, the FCC has approved the deployment of 7518 broadband satellites. Satellites are most visible during the first few days of orbit.

Light Pollution concerns: Given human concerns with the ability to view the starry sky night without obstruction, SpaceX has taken measures to make the satellites invisible. They have added shields to darken them. Additionally, the satellites are usually organized to orbit above regions of earth during the daytime.

SpaceX has partnered with Microsoft on the Starlink initiative – the broadband internet service is hosted on Azure.

Future of Starlink

Humans have been sending satellites to outer space since the late 1950s. Since that time, satellite networks have allowed for varying degrees of data transfer on Earth.

With Starlink, this might get better. The company plans to build the largest satellite network ever. Having a larger group of satellites means that they are better able to cope with external factors like weather and other connection impacts.

Since over 40% of people on Earth don’t have access to the internet, Starlink is solving a major problem. Some of these areas do not have electricity, either – so solar panels could be deployed as well.

Starlink system will also be used on MARS – there is no infrastructure or fiber optic networks there, but with satellites, mars will have the global communication system. We will need high bandwidth communications between Earth and Mars.

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Sources:

  • Viasat
  • Starlink.com

Mars Perseverance Rover 2021 Update

Purpose of the Mars Perseverance Rover

NASA’s Mars Perverance rover is on the way to Mars to find out if life ever existed there.

Perseverance will collect samples to try to find fossils, organic material, and more.

What will Perseverance Rover do?

The rover will land on Mars on February 18, 2021.

Landing in Jezero crater, an ancient lake the size of Lake Tahoe, Perseverance rover will explore riverbeds which appear to have provided inflow and outflow of the lake, as well as delta deposits.

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The Jezero crater is of particular interest because it represents the possibility that Mars had water about 4 billion years ago.

Perseverance rover 60-second summary:

NASA also has a website dedicated to the official updates for Perseverance Rover.

What technology does Perseverance have?

  • The stage that brings it to Mars uses hypergolic chemical propellants
  • Perseverance has 23 cameras with 20 megapixel color, 2 microphones, UV laser, Xray spectrometer
    • This is the first time we will have audio data (via the microphones) from a celestial object.
  • During descent a camera will scan the terrain and heat shields will protect it from friction temperatures of 2100 deg. C
  • After landing the sky crane will fly away but crash into the surface nearby
  • Self driving 200 meters per day, perseverance will run for 14 years, powering itself on a 45kg Radio-isotopic thermal electric generator, converting heat from plutonium-238 into electricity.
  • Perseverance rover carries a system to test oxygen production on Mars, called MOXIE. Oxygen production on Mars is an important part of in-situ resource utilization, which humans must take on if we are to ever colonize the red planet.
  • Perseverance also has a 4 pound drone helicopter and coring drill to search for microbial fossils.
  • NASA redesigned the wheels from Curiosity to avoid getting stuck, featuring a wider diameter and smaller tread-width.

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sources:

  • mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
  • additional info: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/timeline/landing/

55 Space Exploration Statistics for 2021

In order to benchmark human progress in space technology, we keep track of statistics related to spaceflight.

The 2021 spaceflight statistics include economic, satellite, commercial, NASA and government, as well as the International Space Station metrics.

The list is broken down between all-time human spaceflight statistics and those of the most recent calendar year.

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What happened in space this past year?

  1. 112 total launch attempts this year
    • 102 successful launches
    • 10 failed launches
  2. 7 countries / regions launched rockets this year:
    • United States (44)
    • China (38)
    • Europe (5)
    • India (2)
    • Japan (4)
    • Israel (1)
    • Russia (16)
    • Iran (2)
  3. 61 successful launches to low earth orbit
  4. There have been 561 satellites launched into orbit. (as of July 2020 – we’re trying to get the updated numbers ASAP.) [7]
  5. SpaceX Starlink accounted for over 412 of those satellites – dominating the market with 74%. [7]
  6. 21 unique global spaceports that have been used this year.
  7. Low-earth orbit was the most common destination, with 80 launches set for LEO.
  8. The SpaceX Crew Dragon became the first commercially-built space vehicle to carry humans into space, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

Beyond Earth Orbit missions of this past year:

  1. SolO: sun observing satellite launched February 10, 2020 by European Space Agency
  2. Mars Hope: Mars orbiting satellite launched July 19, 2020 by United Arab Emirates
  3. Tianwen-1: Mars orbiter, lander, and rover launched July 23, 2020 by China
  4. Mars 2020: Mars Perseverance rover launched July 30, 2020 by USA
  5. Chang’e 5: Lunar Sample return launched November 23, 2020 by China

All-Time Human Space Exploration Stats

General

spacewalk
source: NASA
  1. Two Space Stations: There are two working space stations in which humans can survive: the International Space Station (ISS) and the Tiangong 2.
  2. There are over 200 organizations that provide products and services to the space industry.
  3. Humans have discovered more than 4,324 exoplanets. [5]
  4. Bruce McCandless II was the first person to perform an untethered spacewalk.

Economics of Spaceflight

  1. Payload Cost to Low Earth Orbit, varying by launch vehicle type [3]:
    • Small-class: Chian Quxian launch vehicle: $17,300/kg and $5 million per launch
    • Small-class: Electron launch vehicle: $23,100/kg and $5 amillion per launch
    • Medium-class: LV3M launch vehicle: $8,000/kg and $63 million per launch
      • Atlas V 551: $5,685/kg
      • Falcon 9: $2,842/kg [9]
    • Heavy-class: Falcon Heavy launch vehicle: $951-1500/kg and $95 million per launch
  2. Revenue of the Global Space Industry: $423.8 billion USD. This is expected to increase by 50% by 2040.
  3. Revenue of the Global Satellite Industry: $271 billion USD

Satellite Statistics

  1. Number of Satellites orbiting Earth: 2,787. [7]
  2. There are over 3200 additional satellites that are unusable.
  3. 1,918 satellites in a Low Earth Orbit.
  4. 137 satellites in a Medium Earth Orbit
  5. 554 satellites in a Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit, also known as a geostationary orbit.
  6. 57 satellites in an Elliptical Orbit. [6]

Government Agency Statistics

  1. NASA Budget $21.5 billion in 2019, which accounts for 0.4% of the entire US budget.
  2. $60 billion is the cumulative budget of government space agencies world-wide (roughly).
  3. Humans have been visiting space for 60 years. The first humans to travel into space did so in 1961.
  4. There have been nine launch vehicle designs that have successfully gone to space. They are: Vostok, Mercury, Vokshod, Gemini, Soyuz, Apollo Lunar Module, Space Shuttle, Shenzhou, Crew Dragon.
  5. The United States established the US Space Force.
  6. Russians have spent the most time in space, with 28,945 total person days.
  7. The United States has send the most individual people to space of any country, with 346 total people having visited outer space.

Commercial Spaceflight Statistics

  1. SpaceX Earth to Earth travel will enable point-to-point travel anywhere on Earth in under 1 hour.
  2. The X3 ion thruster is currently the most robust and powerful ion thruster for deep space exploration, capable of producing over 5 N of force.
  3. Between 1990 and 2017, there were 635 commercial space launches globally. [4]
  4. Space Tourism: no one really knows what space tourism might cost. Virgin Galactic has tossed around a ticket price of $250,000, but also stated prices may be different. SpaceX’s first commercial passenger, Yusaku Maezawa, has purchased every seat on the first trip to the moon and back for an undisclosed amount.
  5. SmallSat / Cubesat rideshare: SpaceX is offering dedicated rideshare missions starting around $1M, selling optional add-ons such as fuel and payload cargo insurance
  6. There are a few ways that the average person can invest in space exploration: This post covers space stocks, ETFs, and more.

International Space Station Statistics

  1. 396 spaceflights have been launched to the International Space Station
  2. 241 individuals have visited the International Space Station throughout history.
  3. Space Tourism: 8 people have visited the International Space Station as tourists, including 7 people from Russia, each of whom paid about 20 million per trip.
  4. People from 19 different countries have gone to the space station.
  5. The average crew size on the ISS is 6 people.
  6. The space station orbits the Earth 16 times per day.
  7. The surface area of all solar panels attached to the ISS covers more than 1 acre and is 240 feet wide.
  8. The world record for total time in space is 878.5 days, set by Gennady Padalka of Russia across 5 flights.
  9. The U.S. record has been set by Peggy Whitson, who spend 665 total days in space across 3 flights.
  10. The space station has six bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree view bay window
  11. 230 spacewalks have been conducted by astronauts at the space station for upgrades and maintenance.
  12. Cumulative crew time on the International Space Station amounts to over 7,300 days.
  13. The space station has been continuously occupied since November 2000
  14. It took 42 separate flights to send the cargo used to construct and build the ISS into space.
  15. The electrical power systems onboard use 8 miles worth of wiring. [10]
  16. The ISS has 8 ports where spaceships can dock.

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international space station arm
source: NASA

sources:

  1. wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_in_spaceflight
  2. statista.com/topics/5049/space-exploration/
  3. aerospace.csis.org/data/space-launch-to-low-earth-orbit-how-much-does-it-cost/
  4. bts.gov/content/worldwide-commercial-space-launches
  5. exoplanets.nasa.gov/discovery/exoplanet-catalog/
  6. pixalytics.com/satellites-orbiting-earth-2020/
  7. ucsusa.org/resources/satellite-database
  8. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight_records#Most_time_in_space
  9. web.archive.org/web/20080815163222/http://www.spacex.com/press.php?page=18
  10. nasa.gov/feature/facts-and-figures

The Space 200

200+ Space Tech Companies

Recognizing over 200 standout organizations enabling space exploration.

From startups, to large companies, to government organizations – these 200+ companies are building products and services for the space economy – now and into the future.

You may download a copy of the list below (excel file) – it’s free.

the Space 200 Download

The list is constantly being added to, updated, and improved. Please let me know of any suggestions of comments.

Jupiter’s Moon, Europa

Jupiter’s moon, Europa, is one of the top places in our solar system where life might exist. Europa is one of the rare places in our solar system that holds all three requirements for life.

Why Explore Europa: Key Takeaways

  • A mission to Europa has a high return on investment of scientific data gathered
  • Europa is the sixth largest moon in the solar system, and one of Jupiter’s 79 known moons
  • The icy crust is between 20 and 180 million years old, relatively young for the planet’s age
  • Beneath the crust of Europa, a global ocean exists 62 miles deep – more than twice the volume of Earth’s ocean
  • The atmosphere is thin – so there is a high radiation exposure on the surface
  • The temperature is −160 °C / −260 °F at the equator

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Possible Life

The presence of water is exciting because it means the planet could possibly harbor life. Also, water is also an extremely important resource for humans in space.

hydrothermal vents
Hydrothermal vents on Earth.
source: NOAA

The excitement of a subsurface ocean of liquid water and possible presence of life brings up the question – why do we think there could be life on Europa?

As far as we know, water is one of the requirements for life – as well as a source of energy and specific chemical presence (including carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur). Together, water, energy, and chemistry form the basis for life’s requirements.

Celestial bodies in the solar system often meet two out of three of these requirements. Almost nowhere has all three. Again, Europa is one of the rare places in our solar system that meets all three requirements for life.

If life were to exist within the depths of Europa’s global ocean, it may take a number of forms. To form hypotheses for what life may might look like, we can leverage what we know about the origin of life on our home planet Earth.

If anything lives in Europa’s ocean, single-celled organisms, microorganisms, and bacteria are most likely forms to be found. Given more time to evolve, there could be more complex life forms. On Earth, hydrothermal vents are home to a diverse array of life forms, which could be the same on Europa. If some hydrothermal vents exist at the bottom of Europa’s ocean, this may be a breeding ground for some life form, just like on Earth.

Life could also thrive by clinging onto the surface crust in some way, benefiting by periodic exposure to surface compounds or other non-polar molecules that accumulate near the surface.

Geological Features and Gravitational Impact

Europa’s thick ice sheet crust is beneficial for a number of reasons. For one, it protects the ocean (and any life that may inhabit it) from radiation. In addition, it allows heat from the core of the planet to stay within the, which may help the ocean maintain its liquid property by providing a layer of insulation.

Europa
source: NASA JPL
  • The force of gravity from Jupiter and its other moons affect Europa by causing tidal flexing, creating a constantly changing surface crust.
  • The constant shifting of the large glacier crust displays:
    • geysers
    • cracks
    • craters
    • volcanic activity
  • Non-synchronous rotation results in a macro movement in the liquid ocean beneath the surface.

More below on the impact that gravity has on the geological features of Europa.

Non-synchronous rotation: proof of a global ocean

Non-synchronous rotation means that the crust of the planet does not rotate at the same rate as the core. The Galileo probe found evidence of this on Europa due to the mass distribution. This rotational behavior means that there is a decoupling between the interior and exterior of the planet (between the core and the crust).

A fluidic insulation between the core and the crust means that the surface of Europa moves and changes much more than other planets.

According to Nature, because Europa spins faster than it orbits Jupiter, gravity data suggest that there may be an asymmetry in Europa’s interior mass distribution. This means that the surface of the planet is moving differently from the core of the planet. The decoupling between the rotation of the icy surface crust and the rocky core suggests that they may be separated by a layer of liquid – Europa’s global ocean. The Europan ocean is the most plausible hypothesis.

Tidal Flexing: Europa’s Forceful Energy Source

On Earth, the cause of tides is the gravitational interactions between Earth and our moon. This movement and shifting of the liquid interior mass creates tides just like in the oceans of Earth. Large movements of water within the interior of Europa cause the solid crust to crack like an eggshell, giving Europa a crust that constantly changes.

Why exactly does this happen?

Europa orbits Jupiter in an elliptical pattern, meaning that it moves nearer and further from Jupiter throughout one full orbit. When Europa is closer to Jupiter, the force of gravity between the two celestial bodies is stronger. The larger gravitational attraction causes fluidic turbulence in Europa’s liquid interior. This causes Europa to elongate like a bouncing rubber ball making impact with the floor. As Europa moves further from Jupiter, the force of gravity is lower, and the oval shape relaxes back into more of a spherical shape.

tidal flexing
tidal flexing
source: astronomynotes.com

This process, called tidal flexing, is similar to how a water balloon behaves haphazardly as it is tossed through the air. Fluid moves – and water does not simply maintain a completely spherical shape.

The constant tidal flexing motion of Europa’s interior causes macro-level friction and pressure, providing a source of heat, allowing its ocean to stay liquid while affecting geological features on the surface.

Europa’s Dynamic Crust

To determine the age of a celestial body, humans observe asteroid and meteor impacts on the surface. The record of craters creates a historical map, allowing us to date the age of planets.

Because Europa’s crust is made of massive global shell of ice, these ice sheets behave similarly to glaciers in that they are moving a little bit each year. The tectonic liveliness of these ice sheets effectively erases meteor craters and other surface impacts within about a hundred million years. This means that no Europan surface features last much longer. On a geological scale of billions of years (Earth for example 4.6 billion years old), a hundred million years is a relatively short amount of time.

On a shorter time-scale, the behavior of these large glacier like ice sheets surrounding the planet is not dissimilar from the plate tectonics on Earth. The ice sheets are constantly moving and shifting, and volcanic activity occurs from within cracks and pores in the surface just like we have volcanoes on Earth.

Because of its constant shift and changing ice crust, Europa is the smoothest surface of any other object in our solar system. There are no real massive mountains, nor are there big canyons like on Earth.

Again, tidal shifting of the ocean, drives this, and the smoothness is more proof that a water ocean exists beneath the crust.

Europa’s Chemistry

Aside from the water ice crust and liquid ocean, Europa is composed mostly of silicate rock. This is most similar in core structure to the rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. We believe that it has an iron-nickel core, which is radioactive and produces some amount of internal heat.

There is also evidence for hydrogen peroxide on the surface. This is a significant finding because hydrogen peroxide can react with water to produce an oxygen byproduct. Oxygen, of course, is yet another requirement for life as we know it, and this process could be an explanation for the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Although Europa has an oxygen-based atmosphere, it is very thin and blocks almost no radiation. Based on the data we have, we still know a relatively small amount about the surface of Europa. Future missions to the moon would help us learn about the chemical composition of the surface and interior.

Craters

There are not many craters on Europa because the surface changes too quickly, removing most evidence of surface impacts. Quick, tectonically dynamic changes mean that any surface features relatively young, around 100 millions years old (as opposed to billions on planets with less dynamic surfaces).

One of the few craters that exists is the Pwyll crater, and is thought to be one of the moon’s youngest features, remaining the surface from a surface impact 26 km or 16 miles wide. Below is a picture of the Pwyll crater, taken by the Galileo orbiter.

europa pwyll crater
source: NASA JPL

Cracks

As tidal shifting is constantly a force of change, the slow flowing, shifting, and disruption of the solid icy crust cracks produce incredible streaking lines along the surface.

The image below is a 250 by 200 kilometer close-up photo (also taken by Galileo probe) that shows in detail some of the cracks on the surface of Europa. This image is taken about 1000km to the north of the Pwyll crater.

The reddish areas are associated with more recent internal geological activity.

europa linea
These lines are called linea
source: NASA JPL

The way the cracks are aligned in different directions has lead researchers to hypothesize that Europa’s axis of rotation has not been constant over time. At some point in the past, Europa may have spun around a tilted axis.

Geysers

Another unique occurrences that comes with having a global ocean beneath the surface of the moon is volcanic activity – in this case, geysers or plumes.

Hubble space telescope detected large geysers of water vapor from Europa, similar to the ones we know to exist on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The volcano-like plumes of Europa are reach than twenty times as high as mount Everest. Since these periodic events expel a large amount of vapor and compounds high into the atmosphere, this provides an opportunity for future missions to capture samples and more readily analyze the constituents in the search for life.

The advantage of this sampling technique is that we don’t have to land a spacecraft on the surface to get samples. This is much less energy intensive than landing, drill through ice and rock to collect material, and then launching from the surface again. Because of the relative ease with which this sampling process can be done, a mission to Europa has a higher return on investment for the gathering of scientific data compared to other destinations in the solar system.

Missions to Europa

Humans have observed the Europa moon during flybys of space probes since the 70s.

Past Missions

  • The first space probe flybys were Pioneer 10 and 11, which captured low resolution images of the icy surface in the 1970s.
  • Voyager 1 and 2 have visited destinations never before seen, in addition to Europa. The data sent back show images of the ice cracks and lines on the surface. Launched in 1977, these probes are still actively transmitting data back to Earth after 40 years.
  • Galileo orbiter probe orbited Jupiter for 8 years and was able to observe Europa’s surface. Galileo provided significant information about Europa’s icy surface, as well as data supporting evidence of the global ocean. It discovered important evidence for a sub-surface ocean. Overall, the total dollars invested in the probe was 1.39 billion.
  • NASA’s JUNO spacecraft captured data about Europa and the other moons of Jupiter in orbit.
  • Cassini-Huygens spacecraft flew by Europa on its way to Saturn and Saturn’ moon, Titan.
  • New Horizons mission flew by Europa on the way towards Pluto.

Planned Missions

  • ESA’s Juiper Icy Moon Explorer, which will also study Ganymede.
  • The Europa Clipper will be launched by NASA in 2025.
  • So far, we have never landed a spacecraft on Europa, but perhaps we will do so in the not too distant future.

This is part of a series where we discuss various Moons and Planets in our solar system, and why we might want to explore them. See more on Saturn’s moons: Titan and Enceladus.

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sources:

https://www.nature.com/articles/34869
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-018-0450-z
life possibility on Europa: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2001EOSTr..82..150S/abstract
chemistry for life on Europa: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/europa20130404.html
https://books.google.com/books?id=8GcGRXlmxWsC&pg=PA427#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://www.astronomynotes.com/solarsys/s14.htm
https://europa.nasa.gov/europa/life-ingredients/

SpaceX Starship Overview 2021

Starship Rocket Overview

Important Breakthroughs

  • Propellant production in Boca Chica will be important to optimize the supply chain.
  • Rapidly reusable rockets – like air travel or car travel, you don’t get a new car every time you take a trip.
    • Re-usability will allow flying the booster 20 times per day, and the ship 3-4 times per day. Reason ships can only be used a few times a day: since ship goes to orbit, the track of a satellite is sinusoidal (unless it is equatorial or san-synchronous). you have to wait for the ground path to sync up with the launch site. It takes like 6 hours to sync up.
  • Satellite Delivery: Currently, the company uses Falcon to deliver satellites for Starlink. Starship will be able to deliver satellites further and at a lower marginal cost per launch, as Startship has a much greater payload..
  • SpaceX created the Raptor engine, which has a very high specific impulse. Because Earth’s gravity is quite high, we are just on the cusp of reusable rockets being physically possible. Raptor engine (it will have 6 engines) uses mostly oxygen per unit of fuel (3.5 tons of oxygen for every 1 ton of fuel).
  • Making it to orbit was tough… landing the rocket was tougher, and SpaceX was the first to do so.

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Reducing Launch Mass

  • Steel: the rocket it made of steel. It has the perfect combination of strength and heat resistance. Because of this, the rocket will be able to have a smaller heat shield, and only need a heat shield on 1 side of the ship. This will reduce launch mass.
  • Orbital re-fueling: Starship attaches to another rocket containing fuel while in orbit, making it pace.

Starship Demographics

Image
Raptor Engine. Source: @brandondeyoung_ twitter

SpaceX has published a quite succinct user guide with detailed information.

  • Engine: Raptor
  • Fuel: Methane and Liquid Oxygen (CH4 and LOX)
  • Length: 72 meters
  • Diameter: 9 meters
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Payload: 100 tons
  • Nomenclature: SN9 stands for “Serial Number 9”

Starship flights:

Starship performed its first test flight on July 26, 2019 and has so far performed 6 orbital test flights.

Starship SN8 flight recap

Sources:

Deep Space Travel: X3 Ion Thruster 2021 update

Ion propulsion is one of the top technologies that will enable deep space exploration.

The X3 ion thruster is currently the most advanced of its kind and capable of producing greater power and thrust. The X3 will further advance human space travel technology and our ability to embark on missions into the far depths of outer space.

The X3 Nested Channel Hall thruster is being developed in collaboration between NASA, the University of Michigan PEPL, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

X3 Ion Thruster Updates as of 2021

Additional developers include NASA GRC, NASA JPL and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Ion propulsion uses electrostatic fields to ionize and accelerate a propellant.

More on ion thrusters here.

Specs for the X3 ion thruster:

the x3 ion thruster
source: Journal of Propulsion and Power, 2020
  1. Type: Hall-effect ion thruster
  2. Size: 80 cm diameter
  3. Weight: 230 kg (500 pounds)
  4. Specific Impulse: 1800–2650 seconds
  5. Force/Thrust: 5.4 Newtons
  6. Power: 100mw
  7. Discharge Current: 247 A
  8. Discharge Voltage: 500 V at peak efficiency
  9. Propellant: Krypton or Xenon compatible
  10. Lifetime: over 50,000 hours
  11. Speed: 40 km/s = 89,000 mph

What’s so special about the X3 ion thruster?

There are two key technological factors that make the X3 Ion thruster better, faster, and more efficient:

1. Hall Effect Thruster Technology

First of all, there are multiple types of ion thruster designs.

The best is the Hall effect ion thruster. The X3 Ion Thruster is designed based on the Hall effect.

Hall thrusters have been identified as the best approach to building better ion drives because of their longer lasting characteristic, as opposed to other plasma based ion thrusters.

Hall-effect ion thruster – What is it?

The Hall Effect describes how an electromagnetic field occurs perpendicular to the flow of current.

By using electricity to create a current in a circular shape, depending on whether current flows clockwise or counter-clockwise, the vector of the magnetic field will point either up or down.

The electromagnetic field gives ionized, or charged, particles kinetic energy, resulting in a force and causing the particles to accelerate in the given direction.

Based on Newton’s third law, the force of particles leaving the engine ultimately causes the spacecraft to move forward.

Why Hall effect ion thrusters last longer than plasma ion thrusters:

  • Hall thrusters feature an innovative magnetic field configuration which prevents interaction and disturbances between ionized propellant and the engine components.
  • In the case of plasma based ion thrusters, the ionized particles tend to quickly erode engine components after a year.
  • The magnetic configurations in Hall thrusters produce a shielding mechanism so this does not happen.

2. Nested Ion Propulsion Channels

In addition to using the Hall effect, the second innovative differentiator in the X3 design is nested channels. The X3 has multiple rings, or discharge channels.

The X3 ion thruster
source: Michigan PEPL

The nesting approach places multiple propulsion channels in a concentric-circle arrangement around a center-mounted cathode. Electric current flows around three circular pathways of different sizes, each producing the electromagnetic field perpendicular to the flow of current. By featuring additional channels, the magnetic field is stronger and thus produces more force to move a spacecraft.

From the 2017 tests at the NASA Glenn Research Center, the X3 demonstrated the ability to produce 5.4 newtons of thrust, which is almost 40% more than the previous best ion thruster, which was capable of producing 3.3 newtons.

Nested Hall Thrusters (NHTs) have a larger throttling range than traditional single-channel thrusters. By only engaging a single channel, a minimum amount of force can be produced. Alternatively, by engaging all three, more powerful configurations are possible.

As of 2018, the project is at a Technology Readiness Level 5, (TRL 5) meaning “component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment”. This is a significant step on NASA’s 9 TRL levels, with number 9 being that the system is flight proven through successful mission operations.

From the Latest Journal Articles:

the x3 ion thruster during test
source: Michigan PEPL

One of the main things that the July 2020 ion thruster paper found was that the X3 is likely able to operate more efficiently than expected.

In technical terms, the paper discovered that cathode flow as a fraction of anode flow can be as low as 4% in the X3 without having significant impact.

According to the paper, “due to the reduced flow rates, the total efficiency is slightly increased (although all values are within the measurement uncertainty)”.

Also, “These results suggest that low-TCFF operation is feasible for high-power Hall thrusters and can offer increased system efficiency as well as improved cathode lifetime, and can do so with little impact on thruster operation.”

Since the X3 Nested Hall Effect Thruster is more efficient, this means that it can be more conservative with fuel propellant, essentially getting more “miles per gallon”, to put it in terms used with automobiles. Saving propellant means that missions can go longer, further, and faster.

The article did not underplay the importance of unanswered questions that have yet to be resolved.

Why is the X3 ion thruster a big deal?

The short answer: the X3 is more powerful while at the same time, more efficient.

Nested-channel Hall thrusters have been identified as a means to increase Hall thruster power levels above 100 kW.

Given the X3’s capacity to produce a greater amount of force, the engine itself is also larger.

This will enable deep space travel:

  • According to NASA’s technology roadmap, “This higher-power category [of ion drives] will be pertinent to human space exploration missions beyond LEO, and for rapid-transit science missions to the outer solar system and deep space destinations.”
  • According to the research paper by Scott James Hall, if an ion propulsion system could produce over 300 kW of power, it would enable possible space missions to near-Earth asteroids as well as Mars.

So far, however, it has been challenging to reach this level of power. But the X3 has pushed the limits on what’s possible – although not yet in the 300 kW range, the technology is slowly progressing to higher levels, which may one day be attainable.

X3 Ion Propulsion Reducing Launch Mass

When you look at a traditional chemical rocket, the majority of the mass that is used to send it into orbit is fuel.

The large amounts of chemical fuel required for space missions is less efficient than the amount that would be needed by utilizing electric propulsion.

“high-power electric propulsion was key to allowing affordable travel to asteroids and near-Earth destinations by reducing launch mass”

NASA / Michigan PEPL

In the quotation above, “reducing launch mass” is referring to the absence of more heavy rocket fuel propellant as part of the payload. Ion thrusters carry a comparatively tiny amount of inert gas as propellant that allows the launch mass payload to be reduced.

“Large-scale cargo transportation to support human missions to the Moon and Mars will require next-generation, high-power Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) systems capable of operating between 200 and 400 kW.” – American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 2018.

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Deep Space Travel with Ion Thrusters – an Overview

Electrically powered ion thrusters are one of the most common propulsion systems for the vacuum of space.

Ion Propulsion Key Takeaways:

ion propulsion system as Xenon exits the engine
source: NASA
  • Ion thrusters allow spacecraft to travel further, faster, and cheaper than other systems.
  • 11.5 times as efficient as chemical propellant.
  • Though efficient, the system provides very little thrust, a fraction of 1 newton. The tiny force, over time, eventually results in big changes in velocity.
    • Cannot be used to launch a rocket from Earth.
    • Are excellent for maintaining satellite orbit, sending smaller probes on long distance voyages to asteroids or outer planets.
  • Can operate continuously for years. Ion thrusters can be used over very long periods of time. For example, Dawn, the spacecraft that was the first to reach a dwarf planet Ceres, used ion thrusters to reach a speed of 10 km/s.
  • Could be used in the near future to power additional missions to Saturn’s moon, Titan, or other places proximate to our solar system, for example.
  • Could one day be used to send people on a thousand year voyage to other stars.

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Even though the amount of force that an Ion Thruster Engine provides is barely the weight of a piece of paper, these systems allow spacecraft to reach enormous speeds.
Although going from 0-60 takes about 4 days, the compounding acceleration of running these engines for years allows them to cover distances of billions of miles through space.

Ultimately, ion engines are the perfect system for long-distance, deep space travel.

What is an Ion Thruster?

An artist’s concept of Dawn, propelled by ion propulsion, approaching Ceres.
source: NASA

We now know that an ion thruster is a method of powering a spacecraft during flight through outer space.

As ions are ejected from the back of the engine, each ion generates a tiny force which slowly begins accelerating the spacecraft.

In the absence of air, there is no friction or wind resistance to slow down a spacecraft’s trajectory. Thus, the tiny, consistent force generated is successful at increasing the speed of a vehicle in space when maintained for long periods of time – often years.

Ion thruster engines are the most useful known method of movement in space, particularly over long durations.

Why are ion thrusters used?

Ion propulsion is specifically valuable for long distance space travel because less propellant is needed to increase speed.

With traditional rockets, chemical-based fuel like methane or hydrogen is used. In these systems, fuel tends to be such a large fraction of a spaceship’s total mass.

Ion thrusters, on the other hand, are effective in generating the most thrust for a given mass of fuel. A lower fuel mass is analogous to a car getting more miles per gallon.

Traditional chemical rockets release energy stored in molecular bonds of propellant (Methane, CH4 for example) and are limited by their low specific impulse, no matter what type of fuel or design is used.

For missions that require a large acceleration (like deep space travel over millions of miles), chemical propulsion is no good because the low specific impulse requires fuel to take up a larger percentage of the payload.

According to the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation, as acceleration increases, the amount of fuel needed increases exponentially.

Specific impulse describes how effectively propellant is converted into thrust.

Key differences between ion and chemical propulsion:

ion thruster
source: NASA
  • Compared to chemical engines, ion powered spaceships are able to reach speeds that are more than 11 times as fast.
  • Greater efficiency; high specific impulse, which means its able to generate larger force for a given mass of propellant.
  • Less powerful
  • Ionizes atoms rather than reacting molecules in an exothermic combustion reaction.
  • Acceleration can be sustained for months or years at a time, in contrast to the very short burns of chemical rockets.
  • Less propellant is required, which means we can send smaller, cheaper vehicles on missions.

What are the drawbacks of ion thrusters?

There are a few tradeoffs to using an ion thruster engine. Although sustainable for months or even years, ion thrusters produce only a small amount of force, so it takes a long time to reach high speeds.

Additionally, ion thrusters can only be used in the vacuum of space. They don’t work in the presence of air particles, and the tiny force cannot overcome air resistance.

An ion thruster won’t work for launching a rocket from a planet’s surface, but it can be used for steering, orientation and acceleration once you’re in space.

How do Ion Thrusters work?

What is an ion and how is it different from an atom? | Socratic
source: socratic.org

Instead of igniting propellant, ion propulsion works by taking inert, unreactive gas atoms (such as xenon or krypton), and inducing a positive charge by removing an electron.

An inert gas is used as the propellant because it is unreactive and non-corrosive. Xenon and Krypton are quite unreactive because they contain a full 8 electrons in the valence shell. Elements with a full outer shell are called noble gases.

Xenon is a slightly better propellant than Krypton because it has a larger atomic mass, producing more force.

The process of removing electrons requires electricity. Often, solar panels are a good option to power the ionization. However, for deep space missions where less solar power is available, the energy is too small and acceleration is slowed. Because of this, alternative energy sources are required. Nuclear is one possible option. NASA and Livermore labs working on a nuclear system for electricity production.

Once electrons are ionized (electrically charged), the ion can be accelerated. This is done by applying a voltage to create an electrical field, causing them repel one another (similar to the way magnets behave when you hold them next to each other). The large amount of ions repelling each other produce momentum and force to accelerate the spacecraft.

The voltage causes the ions to leave the engine at up to 90,000 miles per hour. Each individual ion provides a small amount of thrust for the spacecraft.

ion thruster
source: NASA JPL

With a large number of these ions being expelled, a constant force is generated that can move the spacecraft forward, to the left in the image above.

Given the amount of force is small, for reference it takes four days to accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour. Though small, when sustained over many years, continual acceleration can cause the spacecraft to reach up to 200,000 miles per hour, fast enough for deep space travel.

Who works with ion thrusters today?

SpaceX Starlink satellites use ion thrusters. Each SpaceX Starlink satellite is able to propel and orient itself to ensure it doesn’t run into other satellites or orbital debris. Starlink uses krypton for the inert gas because it is cheaper (though less efficient) and better suited for their large amount of satellites.

NASA Glenn Research center has done tests on a Hall Effect thruster, known as HERMeS, which is three times as powerful as other systems.

ion thruster
source: NASA

The University of Michigan is developing the X3 Ion thruster, which is also a type of Hall Effect thruster capable of generating 5.4 Newtons of thrust, and has set numerous records.

NASA Dawn Mission has used ion thrusters to travel 4.3 billion miles towards Ceres, a planet in the asteroid belt.

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sources

Top 4 Ways to Invest in Space Tech Companies

Human understanding of the universe in its unimaginable infiniteness only has room to grow.

Exploring unknown reaches of outer space will only accelerate in the coming years.

Space technology will improve exponentially. Space industry global revenue is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2040. [1]

The relatively untapped arena of outer space provides investment opportunities for not only large financiers, but small investors as well.

How to invest in space exploration

In an effort to keep track of the space tech market, Espresso Insight produced a compiled list of over 200 organizations building space exploration technologies. Get the Space 200 list below.

the Space 200 Download (its free)

4 ways you can invest in space technology companies:

1. Angel Invest

Become an angel investor and fund private companies and pre-IPO startups.

Platforms like Forge provide retail investors a gateway to pre-IPO companies.

space tech investing
source: NASA

Many space tech companies on the 2020 Espresso Space 200 are private companies and raising or have raised venture capital in the past.

2. Exchange Traded Funds

Another option is investing in an Exchange Traded Fund focused on space exploration.

A few popular ETFs that focus on space tech include:

  • ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK)
  • SPDR S&P Kensho Final Frontiers ETF (ROKT)
  • Procure Space ETF (UFO)

All of these ETFs may be purchased from TD Ameritrade, for example.

3. Indirect Investing

Invest in publicly traded companies that have stake in space.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for example, has invested in SpaceX.

By buying shares of Google, you are indirectly gaining exposure to SpaceX.

4. Publicly Traded Businesses

There are a good number of publicly traded companies that provide products and services directly related to aerospace, rockets, and futuristic space exploration.

Investing in these publicly traded companies is a good way to gain exposure to a larger more established organization that’s also doing exciting things building space exploration systems and technology.

There are quite a few of these on the 2020 Espresso Space 200, but a few are listed below.

  • Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA)
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT)
  • Northrup Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC)

sources:

  1. morganstanley.com/ideas/investing-in-space

Why is Water so Valuable in Space?

Success for human space travel depends on water.

NASA’s big discovery on October 26, 2020 found more water on the Moon than previously known. This is exciting because it means lunar water resources will be easier to access and use.

Key takeaways: Uses for water in Space:

  • Propellant production
  • Radiation shielding
  • Space manufacturing
  • Space agriculture
  • Temperature control
  • Breathing

Any water source means a higher likelihood that humans will be able to sustain a longer visit, thus the goal of establishing a sustainable human presence in outer space by the end of the decade.

Water is as valuable in space as oil is on Earth. – @espressoinsight

The amount of water present on the Moon is equivalent to about 12 ounces per cubic meter of soil, and much of the water is found in the many small craters populating the lunar surface.

This was discovered by the NASA SOPHIA telescope, and other measurement instruments on board a Boeing 747. The curious part is, we don’t know for sure what created the water or how it got to the Moon, but its possible that interstellar radiation could be converting hydroxide ions, OH-, into H2O.

There are TWO articles in Nature that detail the specifics, which I’ve linked to below.

2020 Study 1: Micro cold traps on the Moon

2020 Study 2: Molecular water detected on the sunlit Moon by SOFIA

The abstract for both articles is pretty short and worth a quick glance. If you end up reading them, let me know what you thought of NASA’s discovery.

These discoveries are follow ups to the earlier discovery when scientists first realized water’s presence on the Moon at all. Before the October 2020 discovery, we only knew of water being on the north and south poles of the Moon, which are extremely cold and would be difficult and dangerous for astronauts to reach.

2018 Study: Direct evidence of surface exposed water ice in the lunar polar regions

map of water on the moon
Graphic of water located on the poles of the Moon. Source: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/36/8907

Although these studies have confirmed the presence of water on the moon this year, it isn’t a surprise. NASA evidence for this in 2009 as well, although these studies do have the benefit of solidifying the evidence.

According to the 2009 evidence, the original findings were made by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, and then confirmed NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and NASA’s Epoxi spacecraft.

What is so great about water anyways?

Why is finding water in outer space such a big deal? I mean, comparing it to oil on Earth is a little bit of an exaggeration, right? – Not quite. Water actually is like oil in because it can be used as propellant – a fuel source for rockets or other vehicles.

The Moon will effectively be a galactic gas station – @espressoinsight

How is water used in outer space?

In space, aside from drinking, H2O could be split into pure elemental components hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) and used separately.

This is done through the process of electrolysis, which involves running electricity from solar panels through the water and an electrolyte with an anode and cathode attached, forming a circuit.

Water reacts at the anode to form oxygen and positively charged hydrogen ions (protons). At the cathode, hydrogen ions combine with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen.

electrolysis of water
Electrolysis of water. copyright Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0


This is important for propellant production. From pure hydrogen and oxygen, we can create rocket fuel. Since electrolysis is a relatively simple chemical process, anywhere in the universe that hosts water will serve as a galactic gas station, allowing astronauts to re-supply for additional missions.

As Saturn’s moon Titan is also a potential galactic gas station due to its vast abundance of methane and other organic material hydrocarbons, Earth’s Moon is as well for hydrogen / oxygen type rocket fuel.

rocket launch NASA
source: NASA public domain,
S82-28746

With water, fuel cells may also be used to store energy and generate electricity in the absence of sunlight, when we can’t get good solar power.

And then of course, whatever oxygen is not used for fuel can be used for breathing and saving tank space.

Water can also be used for radiation shielding to protect astronauts. We could literally put a water shield around a spacecraft.

As space manufacturing becomes more common, water will be required in a lot of these processes.

Yet another use is space agriculture. Water could often be recycled from whatever plants transpire on their leaves. And one day, when we terraform dry planets, huge amounts of water will be needed.

Temperature control on spacecrafts is also a use for water. The vacuum in space acts like a perfect insulator preventing heat transfer. Water could be used to cool spaceships to prevent overheating.

So, now we know why having access to water in space is a first step toward establishing a space economy, taking civilizations to the next level, and becoming a multi-world species.

“If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries.” – Jacob Bleacher, Chief Exploration scientist for NASA

Let’s not forget, however, this will be a great and noble challenge for humanity. Procuring water in space isn’t as easy as just digging a well like on Earth. Since its frozen, we have to mine and extract it from asteroids, planets, and moons.

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