Tag: space

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 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.

Thanks for reading!

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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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SpaceX Earth to Earth Travel

Earth to Earth Key Takeaways

  • Air travel will be 20 times faster.
  • Under 1 hour travel time to and from anywhere on Earth.
  • Ticket price may be significantly higher than airlines, at least initially.

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The experience for consumers will start with a boat ride from the departing city, to the rocket launch site roughly 20 miles offshore. Passengers will exit the ferry and begin boarding Starship. The reason it is in the ocean a few miles from any cities is strategic – for safety and to help minimize noise pollution.

In an interview, Gwynne Shotwell has described Earth to Earth in depth and states with confidence that this is something that will definitely exist.

After launch, Starship will exit Earth’s atmosphere and enter orbit, where the vacuum of space will allow frictionless travel at 16,777 miles per hour. Most journeys will take less than 30 minutes, and will be able to go anywhere on Earth in under an hour. For example, passengers will be able to travel from New York City to Shanghai, China in under 39 minutes. The same distance on an airplane would take 15 to 20 hours.

SpaceX has a list of estimated time-tables on their website:

spacex earth to earth travel times
Earth to Earth travel time comparisons. Source: spacex.com

The voyage will feel incredibly smooth, without any of the turbulence often experienced during airplane flights.

In addition to human transport, the US Transportation Command has teamed up with SpaceX to apply the technology in the area of distribution and logistics, where “point-to-point rapid movement of vital resources” would enhance a global supply chain. [1]

SpaceX’s Advantage

SpaceX profitability is important because the company needs to fund future space exploration endeavors; they aim to establish a base on the moon, colonize Mars, and invest in R&D to further advance rocket technology.

“In addition to vastly increased speed, one great benefit to traveling in space outside of Earth’s atmosphere is the lack of friction as well as turbulence and weather.
– SpaceX

With point to point rocket travel on Earth, if SpaceX succeeds in being first to market, they will gain the first mover advantage. The first mover advantage for a space exploration company may be broken down into a couple components:

  • Brand Recognition: SpaceX has done well with establishing strong brand recognition, although spending practically $0 on marketing.
  • Technology: The company has made more than a few advancements and has achieved quite a lot in the way of space technology – from creating Starlink satellite network to landing rockets and making the first fully reusable ship, space travel is significantly cheaper than before. While a typical commercial airplane cannot fly more than one route per day, SpaceX will be able to run 10X the number of flights per day thanks to rocket reusability and faster vehicle turnaround time.
  • Customer Loyalty: The company has built customer loyalty by consistently and successfully helping NASA with various projects [2]. NASA will certainly appear as a repeat customer into the future, and they seem to have a strong partnership.
  • Consumer trust: SpaceX has a rigorous testing process and spent many years before attempting a mission carrying humans. SpaceX makes a point of putting safety first, and has spoken about their goal of making risk not small, but “tiny”. SpaceX has already, for example, sold its first commercial moon flight to art investor Yusaku Maezawa with the #DearMoon mission. [3]
  • Competition: Space travel, exploration and associated technologies are a big whitespace in the market. There are few – if any – competitors entering the market for most of SpaceX’s services. The aerospace industry has Blue Origin, NASA (government), Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, but none of these companies are doing quite the same thing as SpaceX. Given the lack of competitors, SpaceX will play a major role setting the market price for this new type of air travel, which brings negotiating power and optimum competitive positioning. CEO Elon Musk has stated that “competition is good, bring it on” [4] in response to a question about Boeing as a competitor. The SpaceX Earth to Earth service will effectively compete with international airlines, but the target market / end consumer is a small portion of travelers who need to get to their destination quickly and have the financial means to do so.
  • Economies of scale: As SpaceX serves these of customers, the company will continue to try to develop cheaper and better ways to launch people and cargo into outer space. As more people take journeys, the economies of scale that result from these innovations will create a more cost efficient means of doing so.

Carbon Capture

Elon Musk replied to a question about carbon-capture for rocket fuel, stating that “rocket flights will be zero-net carbon long term.”

Airplanes account for 9% of US emissions from transportation. Believe it or not, rockets will be a more environmentally friendly method of transportation than a traditional airplane.

Cost of Earth to Earth rocket service versus Airlines?

Airlines are actually not super profitable. Airlines have been quite un-profitable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although large by revenue, airline expenses are also very large, so they operate on low margins.

For example, the cost of operations of one of the larger commercial airplanes, the Airbus A30, averages $27500 per hour, which extrapolates to roughly $550,000 total to fly from New York City to Shanghai, China.

The Cost of SpaceX Earth to Earth travel depends on a couple of factors. Passenger cost to break-even essentially comes down to cost per launch / number of passengers. Financials – total operating expenses and margins per flight to calculate minimum sales price to break even. These numbers aren’t yet published.

How much will consumers pay?

Note that carrying capacity (number of passenger seats) on Starship is around 1000 passengers for Earth to Earth, compared to only 100 passengers for a mission to Mars due to the need for spacious amenities on a longer mission. With more passengers onboard for an Earth to Earth voyage, costs could be driven down since it would be divided among more passengers.

source: spacex

Like airlines in the 1940’s, rapid Earth to Earth transit via rocket may likely be a luxury high end service for the first few years. There are 46.8 million people in the world who have a net worth of $1 million or more, so SpaceX probably has a sizeable target market to sell rocket seats.

The amount a consumer is willing to pay depends on the amount of value created. The best way to approach this by thinking about the value of a person’s time. A 20 hour NYC to Shanghai flight versus 1 hour rocket ship ride means 19 hours time saved. When you consider that someone travelling on business could add 19 hours of hypothetical productive time, the value becomes much more clear. Companies would even likely be willing to pay more for this service as they have to write off travel time as an employee payroll expense anyways.

The question is, how much is your time worth? The value is saving people time on air travel. How much is this 19 hours of time saved worth to you?

How much will tickets cost?

According to Head of Operations Gwynne Shotwell, tickets will be cheaper than a first class ticket, but more than economy. Gwynne has mentioned that SpaceX may likely charge a few thousand dollars per passenger per flight. Perhaps one day, the company may provide flights to consumers at a low enough cost to be affordable to the average person. We don’t quite know how much it will cost

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Sources:

  1. https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/panewsreader.cfm?ID=29ADE173-D927-8E46-7C6CBC100BAD9F71&yr=2020
  2. https://www.nasa.gov/johnson/HWHAP/welcome-home-bob-and-doug
  3. https://dearmoon.earth/
  4. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/251129

Saturn’s Moon, Enceladus

There are 62 moons orbiting Saturn. Enceladus is one of the top places we should target to explore and learn more about.

Although each exhibits unique characteristics, Enceladus and is of interest to humans for a couple of reasons – aside from the fact that the temperature is -330 degrees F.

Enceladus moon is currently being studied by NASA for a couple of reasons, mainly because Enceladus has water.

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In Depth | Enceladus – NASA Solar System Exploration
source: solarsystem.nasa.gov

But water on Enceladus is unique:

  • The Enceladus moon is surrounded by 25 mile wide crust made of ice.
  • Beneath the ice, a 6 mile deep ocean harbors hydrothermal vents that can reach temperatures of 400 degrees C.
  • These hydrothermal vents are a result of heat and pressure deep within the core, releasing such massive amounts of heat that cracks have formed in the crust, releasing vapor in the form of geysers.
Cassini Saturn Orbit Insertion.jpg
Cassini Spacecraft. source: NASA/JPL

Much of what we know about Enceladus has come from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn, and has observed the moon during flybys.

The ship was able to collect samples of vapor expelled from the geysers, which contained organic material.

Together with water, these are fundamental building blocks for life.

Enceladus contains both water, organic material, and energy – the fundamental building blocks for life. – @espressoinsight

Based on the observations from the Cassini spacecraft, it is possible that the oceans of Enceladus may be habitable to some form of life.

Hot springs are now believed to exist on Enceladus, in the liquid ocean trapped under the moon's ice.
source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Compared to Titan or even other planets, Enceladus moon is quite small – only 314 miles across. This is similar to one third of the driving distance from Chicago to Dallas.

Given that there is both H2O as well as organic compounds, the planet could in theory provide habitat to some obscure life form. Of course, this is just conjecture.

It cannot be stated for certain whether or not there is some type of aquatic microorganism such as plankton living in the oceans below the crust of Enceladus.

If there is life within the oceans of Enceladus, the bigger question then becomes – did life originate there, or come from somewhere else?

This brings up the question of abiogenesis or panspermia as possible theories for the origin of life.

Could life have evolved there on its own, or might it have arrived via the collision from a meteor or other object?

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sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/infrared-eyes-on-enceladus-hints-of-fresh-ice-in-northern-hemisphere

Saturn’s Moon, Titan

Saturn’s Moon, Titan, is a top space exploration target for humans in our solar system.

Titan: Key Takeaways

  • Temperature is -180 deg. C (allowing Methane to exist in liquid form).
  • Atmospheric pressure is 45% greater than Earth.
  • Titan is 40% the size of Earth.
  • According to NASA, Titan’s crust is made of H20 ice, and has liquid water as well as ammonia ocean beneath the surface.
  • Titan is almost 1 billion miles from Earth.

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Why explore Saturn’s Moon, Titan?

Titan is a rare and unique place for a number of reasons. There are four components of Titan that make it unique and worth exploring.

1. Precipitation

Aside from Earth, Titan is the only place in our solar system that has precipitation based weather systems.

On Titan, precipitation is in the form of liquid methane and other hydrocarbons, as opposed to water like on Earth.

2. Atmosphere

Of the 160+ known moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one that has an atmosphere.

An atmosphere is an important feature because it shields the planet from harmful radiation, which protects anything that may want to live on or near the surface.

Atmospheres also contribute to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat near the surface, allowing temperature regularity. Titan is so cold that it may seem surprising to hear about the greenhouse effect keeping the planet warm. The fact that Titan is so far from the sun means that it simply receives less heat.

source: NASA Cassini

3. Titan’s geological chemistry

Titan has unique chemistry that features an abundance of methane and a nitrogen based atmosphere that is 50% denser than Earth’s. Methane is a molecule that consists of 4 hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon, with a relatively low atomic mass, it is normally a gas on Earth at room temperature and standard conditions. Titan’s conditions, however, are cold enough that methane exists in liquid form.

On Titan, the Selk impact crater location features conditions for life as we know it: evidence of past liquid water, hydrocarbon molecules, as well as oxygen, nitrogen, and energy. The crater was likely formed by some sort of asteroidal impact years ago.

Recently, NASA discovered a unique molecule (cyclopropenylidene) within Titan’s atmosphere, that could be a sign of possible life.

This molecule is interesting not only because it is a carbon based molecule – Titan has plenty of those – but that it is a pre-cursor to biochemical processes performed by biological organisms that we see on Earth.

4. Raw Materials

Humans may one day establish establish satellite colonies in order to access these valuable raw materials like methane to use as fuel for rockets and other vehicles.

Titan’s presence of hydrocarbons in such an abundance on its surface as well as atmosphere, makes it attractive as a possible re-fueling destination.

Methane, for example, is a great potential fuel source.

According to SoCalGas, methane produces more heat and light energy by mass than other fossil fuels or hydrocarbons. It produces significantly less carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to smog and unhealthy air.

Methane is lightweight and is more stable than some commonly used rocket propellants such as liquid hydrogen.

Titan is considerably further than our moon as well as Mars. Because of this, sending unmanned robotic missions there takes significant time (Cassini took 7 years, for example) so we should make an effort to do so sooner to accelerate information gathering.

Astronauts may one day be able to use Titan as a layover location, or a type of galactic gas station, similar to the Moon before longer missions.

Therefore, Titan would make sense as one of the first places where humans may want to establish a base – along with the moon and Mars of course.

Exploring Titan

NASA sent the Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan in 2005 and was actually able to send photos back to Earth.

Since that time, no missions to Titan have been carried out. Perhaps the main reason may be NASA’s budget, which is certainly understandable. We have other initiatives like the International Space Station, the Artemis Space mission, and more.

But there’s good news for our future missions to Titan – in 2026, NASA plans to send another spacecraft towards Titan, which should arrive in 2034. The mission is called Dragonfly, and will examine and document potential chemical processes that could be precursors to life. By taking samples, NASA hopes to find evidence of past life, or at least understand how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.

As a drone-based vehicle, the Dragonfly plans to travel over 108 miles, visiting destinations such as the Selk impact crater, which has a large amount of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen present, as well as evidence of water.

Below are a few pictures of the obscure world from that Cassini space rover, which can be accessed via the Nasa Photo Journal. We notice a few specific features of Titan’s surface. But first, consider joining our email list (we only send 1 email per week).

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source: NASA photo journal
  • We’re able to observe methane lakes on the surface.
  • As the spacecraft descended towards Titan, the picture below was taken. Natural drainage channels look like an area where liquid water once flowed. It’s possible there is a shoreline depicted in the photo as well.
source: NASA photo journal

Below is the first up-close photo of Titan’s surface ever taken. We see chunks of ice, which is evidence of water. the second picture shows globules likely made of frozen water. The clusters here with fewer rocks suggest these may be channels where liquid water once flowed.

source: NASA photo journal

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