Hello again. Last time out, we looked at a few of the prime candidates NASA is concentrating on to help broaden our understanding of the origins of life.

As promised, this time around we’ll take a brief dip into some of the other diverse projects tying everything together in the greater name of “boldly going where no man has gone before.” You won’t believe how mundane some of them sound. However, you’ll see they’re all important – in their own way – because without them, space exploration wouldn’t be possible.
(And yes, I will be threading an appallingly poor reference to Star Trek in throughout the item).

Laser Communication:

Andreas Tziolas, a former NASA research analyst once said, “If you can’t communicate with the ship, then you don’t know what the results are of your mission.” Fair point! How do you expect Scotty to beam you up in time if he can’t hear you over vast distances?
Communications is one of those areas NASA is funding to allow us to traverse the depths of space safely.

In theory, laser beams could be used to transfer data between spacecrafts and stations on Earth, ten to one hundred times faster than they can at the moment. If this becomes viable, by the time the first astronauts get to live on Mars, they could transmit information to command centers here on Earth at speeds of 100 Mbps or more, making it several times faster than current broadband internet connections. (Except for mine! I live in Greece and we measure our speeds by carrier pigeon wing flaps)

But in the real world, it means it could very well be possible to transmit a photograph from Mars to Earth in roughly five minutes. (In comparison to the 90 minutes it currently takes.)

Solar Sails:

I remember seeing this concept on Deep Space 9 where Sisko and his son took a break from work using an old star yacht recovered from an ancient space faring civilization. And it’s a rather innovative idea.

After all, while conventional rockets can put astronauts into orbit, they can’t travel the enormous distances between planets as they’d likely to run out of fuel. That’s why scientists have been working on developing alternative methods of propulsion. One of them is to use sails.

The idea is to equip spacecraft with huge solar reactive sheets. Ideally they would grasp solar energy and use it for propulsion. Arming spacecraft with solar sails (No doubt in the manner as seen on the recent Alien Covenant film) is a good option because of the fact that light is made up of small, extremely dynamic particles called photons, which can behave like atomic particles under the right conditions.

The biggest advantage of fitting solar sails would be the extremely high speeds a starship could reach. As you’ve guessed, the biggest drawback is that the sails would have to be a much larger than the actual craft itself.

Deep Space Atomic Clocks

To avoid getting lost while traveling deep in space, a navigational system is essential, one that includes a super-accurate clock to help calculate distances. It’s for that reason that NASA is planning to launch a probe that will contain an experimental deep space atomic clock.

The clock itself will most likely be a miniaturized, ultra-precise mercury-ion atomic clock, (one that will be 100 times more stable than any navigational instrument currently available).
Remember, every clock is imprecise to a certain degree, but this one will be used to measure every single second within a 10 day period, paving the way toward appliances that will be able to determine distances with phenomenal precision.

Sneaky so-and-so that I am, I remember reading a paper on this subject several years ago and included certain facets of “current understanding” at that time within my “IX Series” novels. (My protagonists in that adventure journey in and out of nebulas riddled with black holes. Obviously, they needed a dependable system to recalibrate and reorient themselves to the localized galactic standard.) (Thank you NASA )

Circular Exercise Tracks

No holo-suites just yet then?
I’m sure most of us have seen the news items regarding a recently returned astronaut from the ISS – Scott Kelly? While living in micro-g environments might look like a lot of fun, it can wreak untold havoc on the body. In fact, scientists have said that some of the greatest problems an astronaut faces in deep space are the psychological changes that are caused by weightlessness.

Muscles typically waste away from lack of resistance; bones lose mass; and there’s the additional problem of reduction in blood volume. So, astronauts constantly feel lightheaded when standing upright. On short-trips, they use specially designed exercise equipment and take medication. However, as we begin to look at longer voyages, we need to ensure appropriate measures are included to help compensate for the physiological and psychological stresses brought to bear on our intrepid explorers.

One of the simplest solutions is a “rotational machine” designed to simulate gravity, so that astronauts can run and cycle in such a manner that their bones and muscles don’t wither away.

Warp Drive

As Star Trek fans know, the Starship Enterprise travels vast distances very quickly at speeds far exceeding current capabilities.

In Star Trek, this is accomplished by warp drive, a propulsion system allowing acceleration to velocities exceeding the speed of light. While this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, scientists have, in fact, been contemplating the physics involved since the early 1920s.

Back in 1994, Miguel Alcubiere, a theoretical physicist, published a scientific paper explaining how warp drive could be constructed without defying Einsteinian principles. What does this mean? Basically, it would test the theory that while traveling faster than the speed of light might remain impossible, we might be able to “cheat” by creating special bubbles, isolating the ship and allowing the pilot to bend the normal flow of distance traveled/time elapsed around themselves, thus warping the spacetime continuum.
Warp speed…get it?

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As you can imagine, such a concept remains beyond us at the moment because of the amount of energy required to move a ship of any size so quickly.

Aeroponic Crops

Eating in space requires meticulous care and consideration because of the micro-g environment. As such, astronauts have relied on freeze dried foods since the Apollo missions. However, with many extended trips planned in the future, NASA scientists are looking for ways for astronauts to grow their own food while in transit to other planets, without using huge amounts of soil or water. Research has shown that aeroponically grown plants absorb more vitamins and minerals than plants grown in the ground, which makes them potentially much more nutritious.

(Me? I think I’ll wait until we have replicator technology: Bacon sandwich, hot – extra large-extra crunchy…with a side order of bacon.)

Air Recovery Systems

It goes without saying, astronauts need ample supplies of both drinkable water and breathable air while in space. That’s why NASA has developed an air recovery system that filters, extracts and restores to a ship’s internal environment as much oxygen as possible.
At the moment, such systems are rather good and possess the ability to recover up to 75% of the oxygen from exhaled carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough. By 2019, NASA hopes to raise that to 100%!

So far, huge strides have been made regarding the issue of water recycling. The ISS is now supplied with a special system that recycles both urine and used water from washing, etc, rotating such fluids in a unique distillation process that makes up for the absence of gravity, separating the water from waste materials and putting it back for consumption.

We’ve got a long way to go until we develop anything like the “Stillsuits” as used by the Fremen in Dune. But who knows how long it will take for an innovative mind to come up with something comparable?

So there you go. The path to broader horizons still beckons, and even with a quick peek into some of the projects under development, we can see exiting times are ahead.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what NASA themselves have to say on the topic of “what’s hot and what’s not” and where it might be fun to concentrate our attention.

Until then…

Keep looking up