¶Another round of NIAC. The 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awards have been announced, and just like last year, they represent exploratory funding for an exciting collection of futuristic ideas. This year there were 16 Phase I awards, each of up to $125,000. The Phase I solicitation for 2022 will open in June, perhaps you should apply? Also, like last year (1, 2), we’re going to summarize these over two issues.
- Powering CubeSats via beamed laser energy from a (presumably nuclear-powered) mothership to explore the Uranus system. (Stanford)
- A proposal to make usable soil from carbon-rich asteroid material using fungi. (Trans Astronautica Corporation)
- Ablative lunar arc mining: an ISRU system to mine water in parallel with multiple other raw materials by using electric arcs to ablate regolith and then electromagnetic fields to sort and transport released ions. (University of Texas, El Paso)
- PEDALS, a large cross-shaped antenna composed of multiple dipoles and made of a shape-memory material that can passively unfurl on the surface to provide deep ground-penetrating radar at multiple frequencies and depths. (JPL)
- With the failure of Mars InSight’s ‘mole’, we need new approaches to deep drilling. This proposal uses 1 meter-long borebots that autonomously drill into ice, bringing cores back up the hole, to reach subglacial lakes on Mars. We welcome our subsurface robotic overlords. (Planet Enterprises)
- A mission architecture using multiple APPLE radioisotope electric power systems, along with solar sail propulsion, to explore the outer planets. (The Aerospace Corporation)
- ReachBot: a robot with telescoping legs that can crawl into Martian caves and anchor itself. (Stanford)
- Using auxetic mechanical metamaterials to build a kilometer-scale backbone for a rotating space station. Auxetic mechanical metamaterials have a negative Poisson’s Ratio, which means they paradoxically become thicker when stretched, giving them excellent energy absorption and fracture-resistance properties. (CMU—from Zachary Manchester, who also did Kicksat and PyCubed.)
¶Approaching debris management. Later this week, Astroscale’s ELSA-d mission will launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome to demonstrate its spacecraft end-of-life management abilities. The mission aims to show that debris can be mitigated by craft like ELSA-d with the addition of a simple docking plate to satellites (mission overview video). The ferro-metallic plates host visual markings which allow ELSA-d and its successors to determine a target’s attitude (based on the reflective characteristics of the plate), perform vision-based target-relative navigation, and finally capture the target magnetically with an extendable docking arm. The 175 kg smallsat will perform multiple captures of its 17 kg deployable target craft, both while the target is under attitude control and in the much more difficult case where it is tumbling (mission ConOps paper). ELSA-d will also demonstrate target search and acquisition, catching up to the out-of-range target using “absolute” ground-based radar data, transitioning to relative navigation, and then performing a walking safety ellipse as part of a safe autonomous approach (here “walking” refers to a slow corkscrew orbital motion that drifts relative to the target spacecraft while staying outside its collision ellipsoid—an explainer video). ELSA-d is specifically targeting End-of-Life (EOL) debris mitigation—including re-orbiting targets to avoid potential collisions—but isn't attempting to address the problem of existing space trash; removing uncooperative trash is termed Active Debris Removal (ADR). ClearSpace One, funded by ESA, will likely be the first mission to demonstrate ADR (but not until 2025), while Phase I of Astroscale’s own ADR mission, ADRAS-J, has been funded by JAXA. ELSA-d will be operated from Astroscale's UK-based control center and recently received final licensing from the UK Space Agency. (And some new debris: the ISS crew recently jettisoned a 2,600 kg pallet of old batteries. It’s the largest mass ever jettisoned from the station and will stay in orbit for 2-4 years before making an uncontrolled re-entry.)
¶News in brief. Cosmonauts patched two tiny cracks in the ISS’s Zvezda module which were the source of recent slow air leaks; a Falcon 9 delivered 60 more Starlink satellites and stuck the landing, then three days later, another Falcon 9 did the same thing, completing a record ninth launch and landing on one booster and inching ever closer to the long-time goal of 10 booster reflights; China successfully launched their medium-lift, kerolox-powered Long March 7A for the first time, continuing a slow migration away from hypergolic fuels—the Long March 7A’s first launch in March 2020 failed after first stage separation; China also launched three more Yaogan ocean surveillance satellites; Paraguay's first satellite entered Earth orbit, released from the Japanese Kibo module on the ISS—it will collect data on the habitats of disease-causing insects in Central and South America; Mars InSight is getting ready to use its robotic arm to bury the tether connected to its seismometer in order to minimize the effects of temperature swings on the crazy-sensitive device; meanwhile, Perseverance recorded the sounds of Martian wind and its own lasers zapping; and, NASA is now targeting Thursday for another SLS hot fire test which will require at least 250 seconds of successful burn to move forward.
- Want more Perseverance? Our friends over at The Orbital Mechanics podcast have a really great interview with guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) engineer Nikolas Trawny. They dive into the history and development of the groundbreaking Terrain Relative Navigation which allowed Percy to land within 5m of the landing site it autonomously selected during descent. (Related: before the interview, they reference a very good new Smarter Every Day video on NASA’s Mighty Eagle automated lunar lander testbed project.)
- Matthew Earl used Python and computer vision techniques to reproject Perseverance’s landing video onto orbital imagery.
- Australia's first satellite designed to be part of a system that can detect bushfires within one minute of ignition is set for launch. A similar system was used last year in the US to detect and fight some western fires.
- RF enthusiasts were able to receive Falcon 9 launch telemetry at 2232.5 MHz with a HackRF and 1.2m dish and then demodulate it with GNU Radio. Impressive work, and somewhat surprising that the data isn’t encrypted. Another enthusiast used this method to decode live video streams from the upper stage’s engineering cameras, including one of free-floating fuel in the LOX tank, which SpaceX livestream editors tend to switch away from.
- Meanwhile, speaking of space debris, citizen observers noted that the upper stage of the Starlink Falcon 9 launched on March 4th appears to have had a malfunction and has not autonomously deorbited. It’s in a low orbit, though, and will likely reenter in several weeks.
- Satellite imagery shows Northern California kelp forests have collapsed. 🦦 😢
- Alcubierre et al. have published a review paper handily entitled “Warp drive basics” that makes some theoretical progress: their warp drives still require hypothetical negative mass-energy, but at least the ship as a whole can have positive finite mass. 🤷 Unfortunately, the necessary relativistic bubble would isolate the ship from the outside world, so the ship cannot create or control its own warp bubble—this would have to be done externally. Meanwhile, a second paper by Erik Lentz proposes a warp drive solution that avoids the negative-mass problem, but currently still requires an “astronomical amount of energy”. 🖖