Space exploration has come along way. First people were sent into space (and a few animals, too). Then came the first man to walk on the moon, followed by a rover sent to scout Mars hoping to determine if the planet is able to sustain life. But the mission is far from over, as NASA plans on exploring other planets and moons.
In December 2011, NASA revealed that it was eyeing Europa, the sixth-closest moon on Jupiter and the smallest of its four Galilean satellites. The reason behind this is – Europa is covered in ice. NASA believes there is a large body of ocean underneath all the ice, twice as much as Earth has. This time, though, NASA doesn’t want to use flybys or orbital remote-sensing to study Europa. This next project would require a tiny submarine, about the size of two soda cans to explore its icy waters.
Uppsala University’s Division of Microsystems Technology is already developing said submarines. “The prospect of a future soft landing on the surface of Europa is enticing,” NASA writes in the paper’s abstract, “as it would create science opportunities that could not be achieved through flyby or orbital remote sensing, with direct relevance to Europa’s potential habitability.”
NASA has yet to officially announce the mission; it could take a decade before this happens. In the meantime, let’s look at some of the technologies being developed to aid in space exploration now.
Spacecraft equipped with solar sails
It’s one thing to get spacecraft out of the earth’s atmosphere using rockets; it’s another thing to propel them into space to explore. What spacecrafts need are solar sails able to reflect photons (tiny, extremely energetic particles) to move them forward, similar to the wind propelling ships forward.
This may sound like something that one would only see in sci-fi flicks, but Italian company Grado Zero Espace has already come up with an idea for an intelligent material to be used in hoisting up these solar sails. The material is called a nematic elastomer nanocomposite; it allows for a novel, electromechanically-actuated membrane for the reversible deployment of inflatable structures or sails.
Super-high-speed optical communication
One of the problems with space exploration is being able to communicate from Earth with the team who’s actually doing the exploring. Not everyone realizes just how vast space is, and that communicating from Earth to the spacecraft takes longer. It’s not as quick as, say, sending a text message to someone across the country or globe.
NASA is now working on a project called the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration. It entails using laser beams to transfer data between spacecraft and stations on Earth at 10 to 100 times the speeds currently available. Currently, sending a photo from Mars to Earth takes about 90 minutes. If this NASA projects proves feasible, photos can be sent in just five minutes.
The Curiosity rover is quite amazing, but it’s not an autonomous machine. It still requires human input to perform actions such as exploring the vast lands of Mars. What we need are robots that are able to decide for themselves if an area is worth exploring and what data is important.
We now have robots which can be deployed in buildings or schools that can identify if a person poses a threat. The space team needs a robot that can identify whether or not a rock is worth picking up for testing, if a hole is worth investigating or if it should go down a cave to explore.
Suspended animation for long trips
Sci-fi movies depict space explorers going under a deep sleep and only waking up once they are close to or already at their destination. The reason behind this is, travelling in space to a destination takes years, and it is quite hard to imagine how astronauts spend their time waiting to get to that destination. Even though space exploration is an exciting concept, the travel could potentially bore you or drive you batty, provided you don’t have any ship maintenance to occupy your time.
This waking up only upon arrival to the destination may be something that we will continue to see only in Hollywood films for now. However, in 2006, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston used hydrogen sulfide to slow down the metabolism and cardiovascular systems of mice. They then reversed the state of suspended animation successfully without lowering the subjects’ body temperature. This experiment shows that suspended animation in humans may be possible in the future.
Atomic-powered clocks for deep space navigation
There’s no telling what you’ll encounter in space. You could come across debris smaller than a pebble or as big as a car. And at the rate the craft is travelling, coupled with the motion of the debris, getting hit in space is a lot different from bugs slamming into your windshield on a road trip. It could very well prove to be catastrophic. And the problem with this situation is that spacecrafts are equipped with navigational clocks that are accurate only to some degree.
To solve this problem, NASA is planning on launching a spacecraft in 2015 that will be equipped with the Deep Space Atomic Clock. It is a mini version of the ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock that’s 100 times more stable than existing navigational clocks. This means that the clock is accurate to within a billionth of a second over a 10-day period, giving astronauts the ability to measure frequencies (which are used to calculate distances) with much greater precision. Thus, ultimately, steering them away from potentially catastrophic collisions.