One with the Cosmos: NASA App Review

NASA_App_02

Photo courtesy of NASA via Geek.com

The human collective interest of the final frontier has never reached such high levels today. With news of a successful Mars landing to open applications and marketing campaigns to become astronauts,  we feel like space is inching its way towards the palm of our hands. It may sound a little bit hypothetical, but in this age of smartphones and portable technology, it is very literal. Read More →

Riding Hexapod Walkers on Dusty Alien Worlds

Hexapod Walker

Speculative fiction is the home of countless machines that fly in space, yet resemble humanoid lifeforms. Scientists are now working on the next generation of robots that will blaze a trail in space by going where humans simply can’t maneuver on their own. Like so many things in the field of space exploration, the descendents of those working on these projects will be the ones to really reap the benefits of this research.

That being said, some scientists and engineers are beginning to consider the possibility of new types of craft that use human pilots while incorporating robotic structures to facilitate planetary exploration. Numerous remotely tele-operated vehicles like the Lunakhod and the Sojourner have already been used with great success to explore extraterrestrial surfaces. The use of human pilots in these past missions would of course been foolish, however, as  technology advances it’s somewhat easier to believe that such endeavors in the future may be realistic. Robotics will undoubtedly become increasingly important as space travel becomes commonplace in the years ahead. Automatic piloting aren’t the only thing that these units will be useful for, however. Semiautonomous navigation devices are old news. Treads won’t be able to explore extremely treacherous terrain on rocky worlds. We need to figure out ways to get humans involved in planetary surface exploration.

One viable option to accomplish this may involve hexapod walkers similar to the one shown above. These units would be far more stable over irregular terrain than treads or wheels. Astronauts landing on other planets wouldn’t be able to work with equipment that’s as straightforward as the buggy used on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. By using six symmetrical legs, new robotic vehicles could descend vast gorges without tumbling the way conventional vehicles do.

Robotic algorithms can do more than merely pilot units as well. As brain interfaces become safer, astronauts may be able to directly interface with their vehicles. Hexapod legs could actually become extensions of their physical bodies. Some people have proposed constructing piloted robotic vehicles that look like some form of giant humans in order to speed up the learning process. Nevertheless, the human body isn’t exactly a great thing to model a machine after. While the human body might be balanced in its organic form, it wouldn’t really work as a machine. Humans require liquid in the inner ear canal to remain balanced. Hexapod units derive balance from their structure.

Interestingly, not all of a six-legged robot’s legs are necessary to remain upright. If a few of the legs were damaged, it might be able to still move. That makes this design particularly useful for astronauts who would be operating away from technical crews in extremely hazardous environments. Training problems might still be pretty serious, which is why some people have proposed chicken walkers and numerous other sophisticated designs as alternatives.

Conclusion

Industrial robotics have been used in spacecraft rendezvous and docking simulation conditions so these may be the best approach in the future once we figure out how to get humans to planetary bodies. It’s not hard to believe their use will continue to grow as we continue to push the boundaries of space exploration in the future. As we continue moving forward with our space exploration efforts, the involvement of humans should be considered as increases in our technological capabilities are realized.  Brain interfaces and walker units may be integral components in these future planetary exploration efforts.

Reference:

Toralf Boge, & Ou Ma (2011). Using Advanced Industrial Robotics for Spacecraft Rendezvous and Docking simulation Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 1-4 DOI: 10.1109/ICRA.2011.5980583

Wilcox, B. (1992). Robotic vehicles for planetary exploration Applied Intelligence, 2 (2), 181-193 DOI: 10.1007/BF00058762

The Benefits of Current Mars Research

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Martian exploration is unquestionably a hot topic right now. Mainstream media outlets have largely focused on the most visible efforts of the Curiosity mission, and that’s a good thing. While people might be thrilled with the photographs that they have an opportunity to view on their screens however, they may be less familiar with the implications of this research for the future.

For instance, previously little was known about how the Martian permafrost segments melted, and some researchers weren’t even convinced that significant melting occurred. Mars has no visible oceans, and that means that there really isn’t anywhere for huge amounts of fluid to flow. Thanks to current research efforts, data collected thus far has put together a more complete image of the melt patterns of sedimentary rocks on the Red Planet.

This data is useful in helpful in determining whether life once existed on Mars. While permafrost melt patterns aren’t really able to confirm or deny astrobiology theories, they’re an awfully good start. Although it’s not possible to determine if there were ever organisms that evolved as a result of these flows simply by looking at them, some researchers may argue that further probes are necessary to delve into this area further.

Outside of the search for life (current or prior) on Mars, the seasonal melting model also suggests that oceans could eventually be constructed on the planet. This is particularly exciting where terraforming projects are concerned. With stores of carbon dioxide readily available in the Martian atmosphere, it may be possible to produce something similar to a greenhouse effect. Once this occurs, plant life would be able to produce readily available supplies of oxygen (that stuff we humans need to live) while cooling off the planet in the process.

The research efforts currently under way may help scientists to determine more efficient methods of accomplishing this Martian overhaul. For instance, scientists currently know that seasonal melts could provide the necessary ingredients for seasons that are somewhat similar to those on Earth. Winter phases might be useful for helping to reduce the planets’ cooling process as well.

Tracking weather patterns on the Red Planet might also help researchers who would prefer to manipulate the Martian climate with lenses or shields. Once enough is known about weather and geological patterns on Mars, large lenses could be built in geostationary orbit. These would increase the amount of sunlight directed towards the planet. While engineers would have to be extremely careful not to pump dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation towards colonists, these mirror systems might help to provide necessary light and heat for the planet once we’ve colonized the planet.

Detecting salt solutions have also helped researchers to better understand the chemical composition of the Martian surface. Industrial facilities may some day work mines on the planet to retrieve resources that are necessary to sustain human colonists. This could, in essence, create an economy on the planet. Additionally, as mineral resources continue to become increasingly rare on Earth, these materials could prove invaluable to future Earth-based citizens as well. Rovers actually prove that mining on Mars could probably be done with current technology – yet another benefit derived from current research efforts.

Few will deny that we are witnessing history almost daily as results from the Curiosity mission are released to the world. While this is without question an amazing time, I think it’s important that we recognize the amazing research being conducted in the process – research that could potentially impact the future of humanity in ways we are currently unable to understand.

Mars Earth comparison

Reference:

Peters, G., Smith, J., Mungas, G., Bearman, G., Shiraishi, L., & Beegle, L. (2008). RASP-based sample acquisition of analogue Martian permafrost samples: Implications for NASA’s Phoenix scout mission Planetary and Space Science, 56 (3-4), 303-309 DOI: 10.1016/j.pss.2007.10.001

Amato P, Doyle SM, Battista JR, & Christner BC (2010). Implications of subzero metabolic activity on long-term microbial survival in terrestrial and extraterrestrial permafrost. Astrobiology, 10 (8), 789-98 PMID: 21087159

The Sobering Reality of Orbital Weapons Platforms

Image Credit: LucasFilm/LucasArts

Image Credit: LucasFilm/LucasArts

Space warfare is quickly becoming a reality. Though people might often imagine that wars fought in space would be against some sort of extraterrestrial power, this might not be the case. It’s far more likely than human beings will someday war with one another. As with every other major venture, international law is involved with the development of space. Certain laws are in place to prevent countries from placing weapons of mass destruction into orbit.

Whether or not aggressive powers would actually abide by such laws is questionable. Researchers will have to find ways to defend against such threats. Believe it or not, there have already been patent applications for certain types of hypersonic orbital fighter jets. Craft like this would need some particularly unique engine designs. While nuclear power sounds like a good idea, the threat of fallout making it back into the Earth’s atmosphere is too great.

When orbital shipyards make construction of vessels in space possible, wings become completely foolish. In fact, spacecraft designed for combat would want to show as little surface area as possible. Giant cruisers might have become popular as a result of the magic of motion picture technology, but these designs are almost worthless if fighting an enemy in space.

Since there’s no reason to worry about lift in a practical vacuum, spherical designs are probably the most useful. Few film directors would want to show numerous balls floating around in space, but these designs would be the most practical. Engines would easily wrap around a sphere and propel the object in one direction or the other. Gravitational forces presented by other bodies in space could very well be used as slingshots to travel great distances without using too much fuel. Of course, they could also be considered hazards to avoid.

It’s likely that the first few confrontations in space would be rather awkward. Tacticians wouldn’t really know how to use their new weapons any better than naval officers used the Monitor and the Merrimac. Of course, for the time being any space weapons would be looked at as a deterrent rather than a full-fledged offensive device. Since the Cold War has long ended and military forces are focused on fighting small groups as opposed to nation states, the idea of deterrents has seemed to slip many people’s minds.

Peace is still a very real option. One might hope that humanity can avoid such conflicts. In fact, despite the idea that space warfare is inevitable, the exploration of space might very well help to prevent wars. Since resources are almost limitless in space, development and exploration could end many of the root causes of international conflicts. That would actually be better than having to prepare for an interstellar fight.

Reference:

Klein, J. (2004). SPACE WARFARE: A MARITIME-INSPIRED SPACE STRATEGY Astropolitics, 2 (1), 33-61 DOI: 10.1080/14777620490444740

Maogoto, J., & Freeland, S. (2007). The Final Frontier: The Laws of Armed Conflict and Space Warfare SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1079376

The Science of Choosing Space Pioneers

Image Credit: NASA Ames

Image Credit: NASA Ames

I often ask others if they would live in space or on another planet if given the opportunity. More often than not, the answer is in the affirmative. But what if you were given the chance and actually wanted to go, but were declined because you weren’t selected by a computer algorithm as one of the lucky space travelers? Or worse, what if you were declined because of your cultural background or because your genetic profile was deemed inappropriate?  What about those that do venture off to live in space or on other worlds…will they suffer the types of loneliness that individuals experience in major cities here on Earth today? These are the questions that I thought I’d delve into today.

Loneliness in Space

Overcrowding is a major concern in many parts of the world today. People often feel like they’re being shoved into boxes that they don’t really fit into. Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a great number of individuals have felt as if they are all alone in the world. Large cities don’t make for the best of neighbors. Even though other members of the human race surround people, they’re seldom able to make any genuine connections with those who live close by. This sort of a problem is only worsened by the prospect of space colonization.

The feeling of loneliness is usually portrayed as being experienced by those who are truly without anyone near them. However, individuals can actually become lonelier when other people that they don’t connect with show up within their circle of friends. Of course, in many cases, these people don’t even really have a circle of friends in the first place.

While one person adrift in space might be able to comfort him or herself with the idea that others are back home on planet Earth, ironically the same cannot always be said of someone who were to live in a colony habitat. If other people surrounded that same individual, he/she would probably end up experiencing increased feelings of loneliness — just as so many do in cities around the world today.

This is something that’s been observed by Earthbound psychologists for decades, but it would possibly worsen in orbital complexes and on colonized worlds. Sci-fi writers have long stressed the importance of choosing the right colonists for space missions based on genetic profiles. But it seems that culture and the ability to work together are actually more important indicators of who should go off together into the great unknown.

Un-natural Selection

Using some sort of computer algorithm to select candidates for space travel is probably the worst idea I can imagine. This is a common trope in many pieces of fiction, but engineers working on global cities might have actually found a better way to psychologically equip generations of space pioneers. They have suggested that those who are culturally similar to people they live with might very well make the best partners. Seems like common sense, right?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

While this sounds reasonable, it opens up an entirely new thought process for those who are planning generational space missions. If colony ships are set out on extremely long voyages, people will want to be with those that they have bonded with or care about. Letting a community choose who they want to be with the same way that they always have on Earth might be the best idea.

Genetic selection might sound logical and some people have suggested that it could produce the best stock for other worlds. However, this is a throwback to the sort of eugenic thinking that predominated the early 20th century. It was a mistake here on Earth and the same holds true of space. If space colonies are ever actually going to solve population problems, they need to be able to function much like regular cities do today. By letting people live in space the same way that they always have on Earth, the average citizen is far more likely to adapt to others in an acceptable manner.

There are those who would say that this limits diversity, but in reality it doesn’t. Genetic selection programs and the like would actually seek to create a race of space colonists who are in some way similar to one another. This would limit diversity, and would also have the side-effect of making a civilization less resistant to disease or similar catastrophes. For instance, one colony of microbes could wipe out an entire colony if it were built in such a way. The same could be said of a generational space mission attempting to reach another star system.

Humanity has never been perfect. It is these imperfections that very well may help our species to survive in space in the future.

Reference:

Yusof, N., & van Loon, J. (2012). Engineering a Global City: The Case of Cyberjaya Space and Culture, 15 (4), 298-316 DOI: 10.1177/1206331212453676

Saaty, T., & Sagir, M. (2012). Global awareness, future city design and decision making Journal of Systems Science and Systems Engineering, 21 (3), 337-355 DOI: 10.1007/s11518-012-5196-z

ResearchBlogging.org

China’s New Lunar Goals

With the increased interest in space exploration due to the recent Mars mission, everyone seems to be looking up at the heavens. In fact, some researchers feel that humanity is entering into a new space race. Although China doesn’t seem to be fully funding all of its space projects, construction of a Chinese manned lunar facility is actually a major goal of that nation’s space program.

Environmentalists might also be interested in China’s extraterrestrial power generation plans. There has been a lot of talk about orbital power satellites in some circles. A network of facilities is supposed to be constructed in the near future that would beam electrical energy towards Earth to be used as a source of clean power. New energy sources are very important considering concerns over China’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

Chinese industrial developments have been prominently featured in many news stories recently. However, there are few places where politics haven’t shaped the reporting of such issues. There is a good chance that China won’t even be able to finish such illustrious projects, and they currently suffer from a lack of funding. Regardless of how one chooses to view such developments, it’s clear that all nations need to focus on the stars.

Image Credit: NASA Concept

Holistic Design Factors in Space Colonies

Assuming that we never achieve FTL travel, generational colony ships may become a necessary method used to traverse great distances. Inherent in the term generational, individuals will live their entire lives on these massive spaceships as will their descendants. In other words, these space ships will be the only home many generations of inhabitants will ever know. This of course means that the ships would have to be designed in the best way possible to ensure the survival of travelers. Inhabitants would need to feel at home. That’s definitely a big challenge, but new techniques being used to design oceangoing vessels today could provide a roadmap to achieve these difficult gains in the years ahead.

Holistic design seems to be a buzzword today, but taking this approach means that people are more likely to enjoy the surroundings that they’re in. The Earth’s growth was not the result of careful human engineering. While gardens might be planned, forests are not. It’s difficult for people to be truly random. However, they’ll need to at least simulate randomness in order to build a craft that was as holistic as the planet that people have already called home for so long.

Design optimization plans are already in place with the intent of increasing safety and cargo space, but habitability seems to be all but forgotten. In the future, this will have to change if people are going to be able to run their own space dwelling civilizations on interstellar missions.

Considering emerging conditions on Earth today, if you were given a chance to spend the rest of your life on one of these generational colonies, would you leave behind our planet forever in the name of human survival/exploration/discovery? What must-have features would the ship have to include if you were to go?

Reference:

Apostolos Papanikolaou (2010). Holistic ship design optimization Computer-Aided Design, 42 (11), 1028-1044 : 10.1016/j.cad.2009.07.002

Cooper RA (2008). Quality-of-life technology. A human-centered and holistic design. IEEE engineering in medicine and biology magazine : the quarterly magazine of the Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society, 27 (2), 10-1 PMID: 18472458

Image Credit: G4

ResearchBlogging.org

A Case for Cosmic Exploration

An archival inkjet print of the emission nebula IC5067 by Ken Crawford.

I’ll be brief in today’s post.

We need to step up our efforts for space exploration if for no other reason, than to save ourselves from…well…ourselves.

Cosmology is often viewed as a belief system as well as a scientific field of study. Speculative fiction often presents futuristic societies as living in peace (i.e. utopia) because they’ve turned to the stars. The cosmos unite people in ways that might best be described as existential. Value systems are often based around a certain thing, and those values are typically tied to the Earth.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Earth is currently the cradle that delivers each of us into existence. However, the Earth isn’t the center of the universe. Nations continue to war with each other because they’re tied to this chunk of rock. Perhaps if our species were to place a greater emphasis on cosmic exploration/development and less on boundaries, religions, and fossil fuel, then people might very well develop an appreciation for the universe and consequently, each other.

Teleologism is a philosophy that expresses the belief that natural phenomena are all part of a greater purpose. Likewise, pancosmists feel that time and space comprise all of existence. Followers of such belief systems might say that humans are gifted with a certain raison d’etre that they haven’t yet realized. Humanity is expected to explore, but will continue to fight amongst itself until it does so. Many conflicts are fought over resources, but resources are vast in space. Humans could become siblings if they might only realize they’re part of something much greater than themselves.

Given the state that our planet/society is in today, a major paradigm shift might very well be what the Earth needs.

Cosmocentric Thoughts Among Policymakers

While there are several different philosophies that focus on the benefits of space exploration, they all agree that cosmocentric values are important to the survival of the human race. Extraterrestrial contact may still be far off, but it makes sense for major powerbrokers to be prepared to deal with the issue. Rather than considering the issue from the viewpoint of a conspiracy theorist, policymakers could take the same scientific perspective that they take when dealing with any threat.

Communications data is one of the major points that seem to go by the wayside in any serious discussion of the search for intelligent life. Much has been written about the Voyager plaque and signals sent to the stars. However, most of this isn’t much better than throwing a message into the ocean and hoping for someone to find it.

Scientists need to consider more realistic methods of getting in touch with otherworldly beings if humanity is ever going to have a shot at meeting anyone from another planetary world. Some researchers believe that traces in a particular meteor are the fossilized remains of unique microbes. If this were true, it only proves the fact that preparing for contact is a pressing matter.

Salyut 1’s Lonely Mission in Orbit

Individuals have often focused on the moon landing as an event that brought all of humanity closer together. Other projects related to the exploration of space have also seriously influenced the course of human society and culture. While the Soviet space program was often focused on political aims, some spacecraft transcended boundaries. Read More →