NASA’s latest tech investments include shapeshifters and biobots

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NASA is no stranger to backing unusual technology if it'll help with exploring the cosmos, and its latest move is proof of that adventurous mindset. The administration has invested in 25 "early-stage" tech proposals that could improve both human and…
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NASA’s portable antennas help bring space data back to Earth

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Spacecraft don't usually have much flexibility when it comes to sending data back to Earth: they either have to venture within range of a dedicated ground station or offload it by returning to the planet. NASA may soon have a more flexible option: it…
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NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft Kepler is near the end of its life

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NASA's Kepler spacecraft has been in orbit of the Earth for nine years. In that time, it's well exceeded its original 3.5-year mission and has pinpointed over 4,500 exoplanets and candidates. It's a little bit heartbreaking (though not unexpected), t…
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NASA’s acting chief retires with no obvious successor

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Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. has been heading NASA's efforts ever since the previous administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., stepped down with President Obama. Since he never officially became Bolden's replacement — he was acting administrator for 14 month…
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NASA’s Spacecraft AR brings 3D models of famous space machines into your living room

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Google’s AR Stickers might have fictional spacecraft from Star Wars, but the more dedicated space enthusiasts will probably prefer the NASA-developed Spacecraft AR. As you might be able to deduce from the name, this app brings spacecraft to you via artificial reality, and it’s actually pretty good at it.

As soon as you open the app, you’re greeted with four “Missions”: Earth, Mars, Planetary, and Other. Earth contains SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive); Mars has the Curiosity rover; Planetary includes Cassini, Voyager, and Juno; and Other comes with the 70-meter DSN Antenna.

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NASA’s Hubble successor may miss its launch window

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The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's successor to Hubble, has undergone its share of delays. Now, things are getting even tighter. A report from the US Government Accountability Office finds that because of ongoing technical issues with the telesco…
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How Does NASA’s New Mega-Rocket Compare to the Falcon Heavy?

The Mega-Rocket

With the recent success of their Falcon Heavy launch, SpaceX may seem like the current leader of the space industry. However, while Musk’s aerospace company is new and exciting, NASA isn’t finished pushing the boundaries of space flight and exploration.

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In 2010, NASA began developing the Space Launch System (SLS), and upon completion, it will be the most powerful rocket in history (yes, including Falcon Heavy).

NASA is modifying the retired space shuttle’s RS-25 engines to power this rocket. On February 21, the agency tested one of those engines, and it reached a remarkable 113 percent thrust level. That means the modified RS-25 engine exceeded the absolute limit of efficiency possible when NASA built it decades ago by a whopping 13 percent.

According to NASA, the February 21 hot fire also tested the RS-25’s flight controller and a 3D-printed engine component.

Comparing Performance

“Each RS-25 test moves the agency closer and closer to its return to deep space exploration, to such destinations as the moon and Mars,” wrote NASA after the successful test, but the SLS isn’t our only hope of such missions. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is also up to the task, and it can already fly.

As for other differences between the two spacecraft, the SLS will be much taller: 97 meters (321 feet) compared to the Falcon Heavy’s 70 meters (230 feet). The as-designed SLS also has a slightly higher payload into low-Earth orbit – 77 tons versus 70 tons – but proposed future improvements could skyrocket the SLS up to 130 tons.

As Elon Musk noted during the post-Falcon Heavy launch press conference, the craft cost about $ 500 million to develop. According to a report released by NASA’s Office of Inspector General in April 2017, the agency will spend roughly $ 23 billion on the SLS by the end of this year. Falcon Heavy is also reusable, while the SLS is not, which will affect future launch costs.

To support the launch of the SLS, NASA is modifying a launch tower originally designed for another rocket. That tower has cost NASA nearly $ 1 billion, and it may require additional improvements in the future. It might only be used once, requiring NASA to invest in another tower for any subsequent launches.

NASA has repeatedly pushed back the SLS’s launch date, but as of November 2017, the agency has their eyes on a 2020 launch. For its initial mission, Exploration Mission 1, SLS will fly a crewless capsule around the Moon, and future missions are set to explore the surface of the Moon, Mars, and far beyond.

Given NASA’s increased budgetary stress, that 2020 launch date could change, but if and when the SLS does make its maiden voyage, it will usher in a new era in spaceflight and secure NASA’s position as an aerospace company of the future, not just the past.

The post How Does NASA’s New Mega-Rocket Compare to the Falcon Heavy? appeared first on Futurism.

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NASA’s Opportunity rover sees its 5,000th day on Mars

This weekend, NASA's Opportunity rover spent its 5,000th day on Mars. While that is a feat in and of itself, it's even more impressive when you consider that it was only planned to last 90 Martian days, or sols. Both Opportunity and its companion rov…
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NASA’s Opportunity rover surpasses 5,000 Martian days on the Red Planet

On Saturday, NASA’s Opportunity rover celebrated a monumental anniversary all by itself on the surface of the Red Planet: surviving 5,000 Martian days. It’s an incredibly significant milestone for the little-wheeled robot, given the fact that it was only expected to last just 90 days. Opportunity is just one of two rovers currently functioning on the Red Planet, along with NASA’s Curiosity rover.

Opportunity launched on top of a Delta II on July 7th, 2003, along with a twin rover called Spirit. The pair then landed on Mars three weeks apart in January 2004, both going to opposite sides of the planet. The day of Opportunity’s landing, January 25th, was considered Sol 1 — or the first Martian day for the rover. The term “sol” is used to…

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NASA’s “Cheap” Alternative for Reaching Mars? Atomic Rockets.

SpaceX’s Starman mannequin took us on a trip down memory lane by blasting off in the Tesla Roadster to the music of David Bowie. Now, NASA is making its own trip back in time, to its space race days, by reviving a once-scrapped idea for an atomic rocket.

Partnering with American power generation company BWXT Nuclear Energy Inc., NASA is dusting off its previously-shelved idea to build nuclear-powered rockets. First conceived under the agency’s NERVA project, these “atomic rockets” were popular during the Cold War era, when nuclear power seemed like the solution for most of the world’s problems.

Unlike today’s rockets that take to the sky by burning huge amounts of fuel, atomic rockets rely on nuclear fission, or splitting — typically uranium — atoms’ nuclei to generate energy. These atomic rockets have a reactor that heats up propellants like liquid hydrogen, which expand through a nozzle in order to propel the rocket to space.

While nuclear power could be more efficient, the idea fizzled out in the 1970s thanks to the potential risks, like radiation exposure. Not to mention, the uranium necessary for nuclear fission wasn’t easy to come by, and the temperatures necessary for the nuclear reaction were absurdly high (around 2,727 degrees Celsius or 4,940 degrees Fahrenheit).

A Revolutionary Revival

Reviving the atomic rocket project is part of NASA’s aptly-named Game Changing Development Program, which supports space technologies that could solve current issues with entirely new approaches — approaches like nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP).

“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond,” Sonny Mitchell, Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project manager at NASA’s Space-Flight Center, said in a press statement that announced the agency’s collaboration with BWXT last year. “We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”

Indeed, NASA thinks atomic rockets and nuclear propulsion spacecraft are crucial for their plans to get to Mars. That’s because, out of all possible propulsion systems, NTP provides the fastest trip time, the agency states.

An atomic rocket’s reactor also “doubles the efficiency at which the rocket uses fuel, allowing for a “drastically smaller” craft and shorter transit time,” Stephen Heister, a professor at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told Bloomberg.

In order to get NTP to work, BWXT plans on adopting and testing NASA’s designs for using a low-enriched uranium (LEU) for atomic rockets. Not only is LEU safer than highly-enriched fuel like uranium 235, but it’s easier to get a hold of.

Driving down the cost of sending missions to Mars — with rockets like these that could utilize fuel more efficiently  — would help humanity realize its dreams of stepping foot on the Red Planet. And NASA seems convinced that it’s necessary to explore every possible avenue to get there sooner.

Certainly SpaceX has cut down the costs of space missions thanks to their reusable rocket technology. But that cost still remains high, and companies in the industry want to cut it down even further. So it’s in the space exploration community’s best interest to put as many fuel and rocket options as possible on the table. Who knows, maybe combining reusable rocket technology with nuclear thermal propulsion could get the job done.

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