Tag: space exploration

NASA Mission to 16-Psyche Asteroid 2022: Preview and Updates

The asteroid 16-Psyche contains an estimated $10,000 quadrillion worth of precious metals.

Psyche Mission Key Takeaways:

  • Purpose: to study the chemical composition of the 16-Psyche asteroid.
  • For the first time ever, study a terrestrial world not made of rock and ice, but made of metal. [2]
  • To determine the asteroid’s age.
  • To analyze the topography
  • Launch Date: August 1, 2022 from the NASA Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida
  • Estimated arrival date: January 2026
  • Trip Length: 3.5 years
  • Mission Length: After reaching the asteroid, the plan is to spend 21 months in orbit studying and analyzing 16-Psyche.

The Psyche Mission: Why it Matters

In Depth | 16 Psyche – NASA Solar System Exploration
source: NASA

“What makes the asteroid Psyche unique is that it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.” – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The mission is planning to explore 16-Psyche, a metallic asteroid, and will launch from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August 2022.

Sending a robotic spacecraft beyond Earth orbit into deep space is always a big milestone. When dealing with distances in the neighborhood of millions of miles, we’re talking about so long of a voyage that the spacecraft components will never come back to Earth.

The Psyche mission may present unique insights for a future industry in asteroid mining.

Most asteroids that are made of rock or ice. Psyche is special, as it is composed almost entirely of metal.

Metal is much harder than rock, and perhaps would allow the morphology and crater formation on a metallic asteroid to be quite different from that of a rocky object.

Psyche holds one the the big mysteries of the universe – one of the only mainly metal object in space, how did a metal asteroid like this form?

The metallic composition is interesting because Earth’s core is made of up to 95% metal (iron and nickel) as well. Unfortunately, Earth’s core is 1864 miles bow the crust and mantle, so we can’t directly study it.

Seeking answers to the origins of an asteroid like psyche may help us unlock answers to our own planet’s formation – how might planetary cores have formed?

The metallic core of Earth is unreachable, so we can only indirectly observe its unique properties, magnetic field, etc. By exploring a metal core that resembles that of Earth, but isn’t surrounded by the mantle and crust, we may gain a better understanding of our own planet, and even the formation of other rocky planets like Earth.

The Asteroid Belt

Illustration of the location of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Source: spaceplace.nasa

Psyche is located within the asteroid belt, an aggregation of rocky debris of various size between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Jupiter, with such a strong gravitational field, plays a large role in protecting Earth from experiencing too many asteroid impacts. Jupiter’s proximity to the asteroid belt means it attracts a large percentage of rogue asteroids, keeping Earth out of harm’s way.

While moving through space, asteroids and comets smash into each other at 11000 miles per hour, causing the surfaces to have contours and craters from these impacts. [11]

What Does 16-Psyche Look Like?

Humans have never visited a celestial object like this up close, so we literally can only guess what features the images might show.

16-Psyche is one if the largest metallic asteroids – an M-type asteroid, meaning it is made up of primarily metal, iron, nickel, and other substituents.

Given that the asteroid is made primarily of nickel/iron metal scientists can hypothesize that 16-Psyche may resemble nickel/iron meteorites that have hit Earth.

The 16- stands for the fact that it was the 16th asteroid discovered in centuries past.

Comparing the unexplored asteroid to meteorites that we have directly observed, we may expect to find the rock exhibiting crystal structures resembling octahedron (known as Widmanstätten patterns), and potentially even crystals embedded within the rock.

There are many M-type meteorites that have hit Earth. These may provide an example of how the 16-Psyche asteroid might look up close. Source: Wikipedia

How big is 16-Psyche?

Not a perfect sphere, Psyche has an average diameter of 139 miles across [11] and is 3% the mass of the moon.

The size of Psyche. source: Vissiniti [8]

Technologies used during the Psyche Mission

The spacecraft, named Psyche after the asteroid itself, is being built for NASA by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.

With the ultimate purpose of testing hypothesis for how 16-Psyche was formed, the spacecraft will use the following tools to study 16-Psyche asteroid:

  • multispectral imager
  • gamma-ray spectrometer
  • neutron spectrometer
  • magnetometer
  • X-Ray / radio instrument (for gravity measurement)
  • solar electric propulsion mechanism (ion thrusters)

Imaging Technologies

Multispectral imaging technologies are able to capture images including wavelength data within and beyond the visible light spectrum.

Humans are able to see between 400-700 nm wavelengths of light; however, imaging beyond these wavelengths into the UV or infrared range can allow scientists to gather information about the greater electromagnetic spectrum.

Spectrometer Technologies

Spectrometers are tools that measure light. Although there are many different types of spectrometers, the name literally means “light measuring”. The root word “spectrum” comes from Latin, meaning light. The work “meter” comes from Greek, meaning “a measure”.

The spectrometers used on this mission will identify the way that light reflects off the asteroid to identify its physical and chemical composition.

Magnetometer

An instrument used for measuring magnetic forces, especially the Earth’s magnetism.

The spacecraft will use a magnetometer to measure 16-Psyche’s magnetic field, seeing how it might resemble earth.

Propulsion System

Although NASA has used ion thrusters for deep space missions to Ceres, another asteroid, in the past, this will be the first time a mission has used hall thrusters to go into deep space, and will use Xenon gas as propellant.

Hall thrusters are a type of ion thruster that use a magnetic field to confine the flow of propellant consistent. For example, the NASA developed X3 is a type of hall-effect ion thruster.

CSU's Hall Effect Thruster Operating on Krypton
Hall thruster testing with Krypton. Source: Colorado State University

Hall thrusters are commonly used in Earth orbiting satellites. SpaceX Starlink satellites famously use hall thrusters to alter their orbit and trajectory.

Ion thrusters are the ideal propulsion system for long-term missions because they allow for a slow but consistent and energy efficient acceleration, allowing the spacecraft to reach a higher max velocity. These ion thrusters are often solar powered via electricity.

Whereas chemical propulsion (which rockets use to take off from Earth) are useful for short bursts of power to reach orbit, these systems are not ideal to sustain long-distance space travel because the fuel would take up much more space than we have room for.

If the mission leaves in August 2022 as planned, it will take 3.5 years to reach Psyche, arriving in January 2026.

In addition to determining the feasibility of possible mining missions in the future, scientists hope that studying a metal based asteroid will uncover insights into Earth’s core, which is also composed mainly of metal.

How Much Money is 16-Psyche Worth?

According to one of NASA’s principal investigators for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the fact that an asteroid contains trillions of dollars worth of precious metals doesn’t mean that it’s going to make everyone on Earth rich.

Elkins-Tanton, who was recently interviewed by the Miami Herald, stated that although Psyche contains massive amounts of iron, nickel, copper, even gold and platinum, humans will not be able to benefit financially from it for two reasons:

  1. The logistics of mining and transporting that amount of cargo back to Earth is impossible from a practical standpoint. It would take us decades or centuries to develop and start this process.
  2. If we were to magically have all that metal on Earth, it would crash the markets due to an oversupply, making metals practically worthless.

Although the Elkins-Tanton’s logic is sound, perhaps there is a scenario where humans are able to overcome the logistics of asteroid mining for our benefit without downfalls of flooding the markets.

The way this scenario could play out is through exponential technological progress.

In the 1950s, for example, people never imagined that we would carry computers around in our pockets. We never would have imagined

In 2021, the industry for computer chips is worth around $500 billion. [10] Anyone who says we could have predicted this is lying.

Similarly, it is impossible to imagine what industries and markets will exist, or what manufacturing and commerce will look like as humans embark into the Space Age.

Perhaps someday, within a couple generations or even sooner, humans will be mining asteroids and using the materials to build unimaginable technologies that only exist in the world of science fiction today.

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Sources:

  1. NASA JPL
  2. Psyche Mission site
  3. https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/04/nasas-most-metal-mission-will-test-new-higher-power-electric-thrusters/
  4. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/dawn/technology/ion-propulsion/
  5. https://www.freethink.com/articles/hall-thruster
  6. https://spacenews.com/phase-four-launches-first-plasma-propulsion-systems/
  7. https://scitechdaily.com/nasas-electrifying-new-propulsion-systems/
  8. The Size of Psyche asteroid
  9. Psyche Asteroid Miami Herald
  10. Computer chips
  11. The Psyche mission blog on Medium

Bezos Bros launching to space

Initial reactions to the announcement that Bezos is going to take one of his Blue Origin Shepard rockets to outer space include excitement and enthusiasm, and yes – we’re all excited that commercial spaceflight has seen such a surge over the past few years. The more progress, the better, right?

For $2.8 billion, who wouldn’t want to join in on that Bezos bros group hug?

As cool as it will be to see another manned rocket takeoff towards the stars, someone has to be the Dad speaking with a voice of reason.

There are two reasons that a crewed launch by Blue Origin might be too big of a risk to take:

  1. Passengers: The crew includes three civilian passengers – people that have not been formally trained as astronauts.
  2. Launch Vehicle: Blue Origin spacecraft has not yet carried humans, and has only done 16 flights total, launching only once in all of 2020. By contrast, SpaceX has done over a hundred launches, yet doesn’t expect to have its first civilian flight until 2023.

As much as we all want to see space travel rocket us into the future and beyond, it is important to take things one step at a time.

The last thing that anyone wants to happen is for someone to get injured or worse on a mission to space that is largely a vanity stunt.

There have been tragic incidents in spaceflight in the past. The tragedy of the Challenger spacecraft killed seven astronauts in 1986. In addition to grievances over the loss of loved ones, the macro impact of this horrific event resulted in a major setback to the crewed space program and suspension of the Shuttle program for 32 months. This horrible loss may have ultimately contributed to slowed progress in space travel overall.

The small risk that something goes wrong on a manned mission would leave a sour taste in the mouths of space fans across the globe, and could even cause stagnation in space technology progress.

In an age of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, it is a tremendous risk to launch living humans on a rocket unless the technology is advanced enough or it is absolutely necessary. Since the rocket is fully autonomous, why not let it perform a few more test launches to ensure it is re-tested and 1000% safe?

Assuming the technology is mature enough for manned space travel (it surely is), there’s just so many other things Blue Origin could do – like, work on getting to Mars, and perhaps start getting things setup for a propellant production facility there. Human flight will have its heyday, but we should focus on industrial and non-human cargo first. Life is precious.

On the other hand, I get the need to publicize the progress in space travel technology. The more eyeballs that are following space travel, the better. Bezos’ launch is extremely inspirational, and will definitely draw more attention means more interest, which could correspond to spaceflight companies raising more money for R&D, etc.

And for a hefty sum of $2.8 billion dollars, you could join the Bezos on their Super Space Bro’s mission to the stratosphere.

Look – this post sure can’t stop Bezos from going to space. I’ll be crossing my fingers and cheering him on, but it does make many of us nervous.

What do you think? Would you go?

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This Private Company is Exploring Deep Space

Xplore is Sending Missions to Deep Space

Headed for the Moon by 2021, with plans for Mars, Venus, and the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, Xplore is a company that specializes in sending ships beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space.

Deep space probes – sometimes confused with cubesats or smallsats – are special because they are not restricted to the orbit of any single celestial body. These vehicles travel beyond Earth orbit to untapped places in our solar system.

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Xplore focuses on a “Space as a Service” business model, which means that any company, university, or community can design their own mission into deep space.

The Space as a Service – or SaaS – acronym is a play on the large “Software as a Service” industry based around Silicon Valley tech companies.

This business model will enable greater partnerships to form with other companies and organizations to provide more opportunities for scientists study the unknown mysteries of deep space.

Xcraft: The Spaceship

Xcraft is a multi-mission spacecraft.

From a single launch, the goal is to be able to deploy multiple cubesats to orbit different planets and gather data from all over.

The Xcraft is Modular meaning it can scale to accommodate unique requirements, payloads, additional sensors, etc. The company can easily scale-up and increase the capabilities of the spacecraft based on the needs of a specific mission.

source: Xplore

Missions can last years because it use electric propulsion. The ability to do in-space refueling means the mission doesn’t have to end when fuel is gone, so it has the bandwidth to perform multiple objectives.

Xcraft is designed to be stable for high performance sensors.

Xplore Partnerships

Partnering with the Spaceil Arch Mission, Xplore has helped to send send human data to the Moon as an archive. We now have a 30 million page library documenting all of human history on the moon.

And for $12,500 you can send a tube of 1 gram of whatever material you want into deep space. Partnering with the company Celestis, you can send time capsules, engraved messages, data archives, genetic material, you name it. Some people use this as essentially as a space memorial service for loved ones.

source: Xplore

Beyond Earth Orbit

Great excitement and wonder about space lies beyond Earth orbit. There are these worlds that exist, of which we have fragmented, pixelated images of at best. There is SO much to learn and explore.

There might be life. No one knows the answer.

With the help of Xplore, humans are progressing onward towards deep space!

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Please find a 60-second overview video of Xplore below:

sources:

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/

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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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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