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Space: Dispatches from the Garden of the Gods II

Published on:
May 12th 2016

State of Space 2016: Humans to Mars and cube satellites.

Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA, Stephen Jurczyk laid out the problems awaiting the first human descent on Mars. We were all ears.

One main hurdle is that with current tech, NASA can only land 1 metric ton on the planet. Where our approach is a small vessel and cramped quarters, NASA wants big structures and sturdy surface systems catering to many which will take landing at least 18-20 ton.

This craves new lines of thinking but there’ll be plenty of time for that: NASA’s timeline for a return trip of humans to Mars is the mid 2030s, earliest.

With wrecked deadlines for Mars previously (almost every President in modern times announced a human mission to the red planet) and hefty delays at NASA in general, a first human Mars landing could well take place on the 100 year anniversary of our first steps on the moon (July 20, 1969).

More exciting is the new technology NASA is working on towards the project: High power electric thrusters and nuclear electric propulsion, very low volume fuel, multigig laser communication relays, deep space navigation using exact atomic clocks (and pulsars), low intensity light technology (since Mars is further away from the sun), 3d print habitats from trash or local resources assembled by robots, and how to get water from the soil.

We got the impression NASA actually enjoys playing with the new toys and is ready to give up much of the cargo transportation. The agency stressed it doesn’t want to be anchor tenant in future LEO infrastructure (the Space Station) and would buy the Mars cargo delivery if available.

A few weeks later SpaceX would make a bid on that offer.

Most of all NASA called for fresh business models coming out of New Space. Everybody wants to find gold in the New World.

A comment during the ‘Big Booster’ session led by former NASA Chief Scientist John Grunsfeld further drove home the agency’s current image of itself: “NASA’s new SLS heavy lifter is the explorer showing the way, while new actors like SpaceX are traders following the routes.”

Cube satellites

Closer to home NASA is into small launchers, in-space satellite repairs and VR/Oculus for training staff.

Because there was so much fuss about them this year, we decided to jump in on a session about cube satellites. Called minisats, microsats, nanosats, picosats and doves, most are privately built and launched on ride shares (leftover space on big rockets).

I recalled a decade ago listening to a Stanford professor who launched Rubik’s cube sized satellites with students for learning and fun. Who could have imagined the budding industry the experiments would give rise to only years later.

A satellite is a simple box that needs power, communication, attitude, navigation and propulsion.

Mini satellites weigh a few ounces to several pounds, and suffer limitations. Cubesats in deep space fail often, don’t last in orbit very long, have small aperture size, must be designed for constant vibration, ball bearing is a big issue, so is lubrication, just to name a few hurdles.

But don’t give up on your personal spy dish just yet. Presenters said there’s a Moore's law for spacecraft electronics right now, packing increasingly more components in each shoebox. One young manufacturer said his people build one box and start the second already before the first is finished “to shorten path of experience”.

The movement is building speed, paving way for interconnected satellite swarms linked with large commercial players for a whole new range of exciting applications.

Tina Sjogren
Tina Sjogren
CEO & Founder
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Vacuum tube of an atomic clock. At a meetup on Google we joined a few years ago Pulsars were proposed for autonomous deep space navigation far from Earth.

Space laser communication is very similar to current transmissions except instead of radio or microwaves, lasers are used to provide high data rates and capacity.

Slide of NASA's Mars wish list: In-space propulsion, high-bandwidth comm, life support, local resources, entry descent and landing (note no ascent), space robotics, lightweight materials, navigation and observation.