KBTX - Bryan/College Station, Texas.
Celebration of LBJ's role in U.S. Space Program, and 100th Birthday:
9 registered teams attended briefing at Holloman Air Force Base to prepare for October 24 and 25 Competition
Alamogordo – The 9 teams registered to compete in the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge concluded the first Team Summit at Holloman Air Force Base today. The Challenge, run by the X PRIZE Foundation, is a two-level, two million dollar competition requiring a vehicle to simulate trips between the Moon’s surface and lunar orbit. 2008 will be the third year that the Challenge has taken place in New Mexico, and is helping to kickstart the fledgling spaceflight industry in New Mexico.
Read more HERE.
Brian Gilchrist and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, believe they have potentially solved a problem that currently haunts modern space travel: waste of energy and damage to the large engines used to propel the shuttles.
Their answer: Nano Thrusters.
Even if the Apollo moon mission wasn't fake, they ask, what good came out of it?
"Most people would say Tang," Richard Dell said, referring to the allegedly orange-flavored powdered drink a generation of us grew up believing had hydrated the first astronauts.
Dell is kidding, of course. As program manager for the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, he is part of a group of volunteers trying to land a robot on the moon in an international competition to win $30 million.
"I'm talking to you on a cell phone using lithium batteries," he said, citing one byproduct of lunar exploration.
He and his father, Richard Dell Sr., cited the fuel cells that run hybrid cars, as well as laptop computers, invisible braces and GPS systems. Even Velcro -- which appeared too late for those of us who, until an embarrassingly late age, had trouble tying our shoes -- emerged from the space program: Invented in 1941, Velcro reportedly became popular after astronauts began using it to fasten their suits.
The Dells are part of TeamSTELLAR (Space Technology for Exploration, Lunar Landing and Roving, www.teamstellar.org). The first team to build a robot that lands on the moon by December 2012, travels 500 meters over the lunar surface and sends images and data back to Earth wins Google's loot.
Aside from any technological discoveries that may emerge from future lunar exploration, the younger Dell said, "It's amazing how we've tapped into the imagination of young people. A number of retired NASA graybeards have contacted us, but most are in their 20s. ... Literally hundreds of people have sent in resumes."
They'll need literally hundreds "by the time this over," said Alan Rich, space systems integration engineer for TeamSTELLAR. "We have to have people with different areas of expertise," areas that don't always overlap.
What's harder? Raising the robot or raising the astronomical amount of moolah it'll take to get that baby off the ground?
"Money, money, money," Dell said.
Thus, he said, Team STELLAR is seeking "grass-roots donations" and corporate contributions.
Yikes. Isn't there a danger in seeking money from corporations for what seems like such a scientific, even altruism-driven endeavor? What if, in exchange for a sizable donation, a company wants the robot to plant a flag on the moon saying "When visiting Earth, Eat at Sal's"?
"Oh, goodness," Dell said. "That's not the danger; that's the benefit. Imagine having FedEx say they delivered the first package to the moon?"
Dell Sr., co-director of the project, said: "We have tremendous technology. The state already has a significant presence in the aerospace industry. NASA is watching this closely, because as we look to the future, they'll likely want to do a lot of outsourcing" when planning manned moon stations.
Winning, he said, "would be a great benefit to N.C. State University." That's where an open house for TeamSTELLAR will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Building 2 on Centennial Campus.
Here's a question: If the astronauts really did take Tang to the moon, why didn't they leave it? Blecccchhh.
Soyuz waiver in jeopardy, says Nelson
NASA's ability to send its astronauts to the $100 billion international space station is in danger of becoming a costly casualty of the Russia-Georgia war.
Because the American fleet of space shuttles will be retired in 2010 and the United States won't have a replacement ready until at least 2015, NASA wants to negotiate a contract this year to have Russia's Soyuz spacecraft transport all astronauts traveling to and from the station during the gap.
But first, Congress has to pass a waiver to a 2000 law forbidding government contracts with nations that help Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs, as Russia has done. Even before the Georgia incursion, the bill faced strong opposition, and key members said this week that the chances of granting a waiver now are slim.
"In an election year, it was going to be very difficult to get that waiver to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to an increasingly aggressive Russia, where the prime minister is acting more and more like a czar," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "Now, I'd say it's almost impossible."
Read more HERE.
The fuel in this case is helium-3, a lighter isotope of the helium used in balloons. In high energy collisions, helium-3 fuses with other nuclei to release more energy and less waste than the reactions in traditional nuclear reactors.
"If we can show that we can burn helium-3, it is a much cleaner and safer energy source than other nuclear fuels," said Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Just 40 tons of this stuff has enough potential energy to meet the total U.S. electricity demand for a year. However, there is almost no helium-3 on Earth. The closest supply is on the moon.
Several space agencies, notably in China, Russia and India, have mentioned helium-3 as a potential payoff for their lunar projects.
"I don't think that the main motivation to go back to the moon is helium-3," Kulcinski said. "But over the long-term, we do face an energy problem."
All current nuclear power is based on fission, in which a large nucleus (such as uranium) breaks apart into smaller nuclei.
The alternative is fusion, in which two small nuclei come together to form a bigger nucleus and release copious amounts of energy.
A commercial fusion reactor has never been built, but a prototype called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has just begun construction in Cadarache, France. The plan is to generate the needed 100 million degree plasma by the year 2016, but a power plant that can supply electricity might not come online for another 20 years after that.
The reaction that will occur in ITER is the fusing of two hydrogen isotopes: deuterium and tritium. One concern is that tritium is radioactive and a component of nuclear weapons, so care must be taken in dealing with it.
Another problem is the highly energetic neutrons emitted from the deuterium-tritium reaction. These neutrons slam into the reactor walls and cause structural damage. It is expected that the walls in ITER will have to be replaced every one to two years, Kulcinski said.
This is why Kulcinski and others advocate trading the tritium with non-radioactive helium-3.
"The advantage is that it makes very few neutrons," said Rich Nebel of Emc2 Fusion, a company based in Santa Fe, N.M. "This reduces radiation issues and also greatly simplifies the engineering."
Furthermore, the reaction products of helium-3 fusion are charged, so their energy can be directly converted into electricity without having to go through the inefficient step of boiling water to make steam.
Despite its apparent attractiveness, helium-3 is often neglected by fusion researchers. One reason is that the Earth has very little of it. A small portion of helium-3 is collected as an unwanted by-product inside nuclear weapons and sold for about $1,000 per gram, Kulcinski said.
A continuous supply of helium-3 can be found in the solar wind, but our planet's magnetic field deflects these particles away. The same is not true on the moon. The moon has collected 1 million to 5 million tons of helium-3, from the solar wind, over its 4.5 billion year history, Kulcinski said.
Evidence for this was found in the lunar rocks (brought back by the Apollo astronauts and Russian rovers) at a level of 10 to 20 parts per billion.
"Helium-3 is present on the moon, but in very small concentration levels, meaning that many hundreds of millions of tons of soil must be processed to extract a ton of helium-3," said Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a NASA-funded research institution.
This extraction requires heating lunar dust particles to around 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius), Spudis said.
Kulcinski and his colleagues have designed rovers that could move along the surface, scraping up lunar soil and heating it with concentrated sunlight.
Such a mining operation would retrieve 300 times more energy than it uses (including all the energy to fly to the moon and back), Kulcinski estimates. In comparison, mining coal returns 15-20 times the energy put in. His team has estimated that it might cost around $800 million to bring back each ton of lunar helium-3.
This might sound like a lot, but if you could sell the fusion energy at a price comparable to gasoline based on oil at $100 per barrel, the helium-3 would be worth $10 billion per ton.
"Our real challenge is not obtaining the helium-3; it is demonstrating that we can burn it," Kulcinski said.
Tough to burn
Burning helium-3 requires higher initial energy than burning hydrogen isotopes. This is why ITER is not considering helium-3 as a possible fuel at this time.
However, Kulcinski's group works on a different method — called inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) — for achieving fusion reactions. Instead of using magnetic fields to confine a very hot plasma like ITER plans to do, IEC works by accelerating nuclei towards each other with electric fields.
Kulcinski and his collaborators have managed to sustain nuclear fusion in their small prototype system. The company Emc2 Fusion is also working on a similar design.
However, all of these IEC demonstrations, at least for now, require much more input energy than they can deliver. Most researchers agree that helium-3 is unlikely to be the first fuel used in fusion reactors.
"One should never say never — it may come to pass that helium-3 could become an important source of energy in the coming century," Spudis said. "That time has not come yet. And I suspect that it is still some time off."
SpaceX - MacGregor: Diane Murphy, vice president of SpaceX reports the full nine-engine ful configuration of the Falcon 9 booster, integral to the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) part of US national space policy, has been successfully tested in central Texas.
"This marks the first firing of a Falcon 9 first stage with its full complement of nine Merlin 1C engines," Murphy said.
"Once a near term Merlin 1C fuel pump upgrade is complete, the sea level thrust will increase to 950,000 lbf, making Falcon 9 the most powerful single core vehicle in the United States."
The successful tests, two months ahead of schedule, challenge "the Gap" worries many experts have expressed about U.S. support of the International Space Station after the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010. SpaceX has now demonstrated a unequivocal capability to make orbit after engine failures.
"We made a major advancement from the previous five engine test by adding four new Merlin engines at once," said Tom Mueller, Vice President of Propulsion for SpaceX. "All phases of integration went smoothly and we were elated to see all nine engines working perfectly in concert."
SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally-developed Merlin engines, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous to planetary missions. SpaceX currently has 12 missions on its manifest, excluding the two previous Falcon 1 demonstration flights, plus indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts with NASA and the US Air Force.
As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX is in a position to help fill the gap in American spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010.
Under the existing Agreement, SpaceX will conduct three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for NASA, culminating in Dragon berthing with the ISS. SpaceX is the only COTS contender that has the capability to return cargo and crew to Earth. NASA also has an option to demonstrate crew services to the ISS using the Falcon 9 / Dragon system. SpaceX is the only COTS contender that has the capability to return pressurized cargo and crew to Earth. The first Falcon 9 will arrive at the SpaceX launch site (complex 40) at Cape Canaveral by the end of 2008 in preparation for its maiden flight.