Daily Archives: July 27th, 2009

Grissom/Obama Meme going Viral?

Sure, I’ll help Chris take this viral.

I love a good Masonic Mystery!

Via The Secret Sun:


In the past 36 hours this blog has been bombarded with thousands of hits, after a Drudge Report-type site linked to part one of the Gus Grissom/Barackobamun piece. There were the usual corny old jokes about “tinfoil hats” and all of the rest of the worn-out snark in the comments sections (along with some stunning displays of poor reading comprehension), but that represents only a tiny percentage of the traffic. Having been on the internet for the better part of the last two decades, I recognize defensive ironic distancing when I see it.

What’s more, I’m noticing that other sites are picking up on the meme. It’s too soon to say how resonant the meme will become, but it did get me looking at Obama’s possible Grissom obsession again (and that’s what I was writing about- not a conspiracy, per se.)

In the first few seconds of doing so, I found this speech to the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, 2009. Although it was a more general (read: “boring”) gabfest on science and technology, Barackobamun spoke about his support for the space colonization program:

My budget includes $150 billion over 10 years to invest in sources of renewable energy as well as energy efficiency. It supports efforts at NASA, recommended as a priority by the National Research Council, to develop new space-based capabilities to help us better understand our changing climate.

And he even snuck in the Magic(k) Number:

America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity — if called upon to join a cause larger than themselves. We’ve got evidence. You know, the average age in NASA’s mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26. I know that young people today are just as ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century.

So what’s the big deal about this speech? Nothing, really. Except it took place of 5o years to the day after Gus Grissom was chosen by NASA for the Mercury Project.

Obama-logo-712332

 

Grissom/Obama Meme going Viral?

Ion engine could power 39 day trips to Mars

Finally, NASA’s taking notice of an exotic technology: Via New Scientist:

There’s a growing chorus of calls to send astronauts to Mars rather than the moon, but critics point out that such trips would be long and gruelling, taking about six months to reach the Red Planet. But now, researchers are testing a powerful new ion engine that could one day shorten the journey to just 39 days.

Traditional rockets burn chemical fuel to produce thrust. Most of that fuel is used up in the initial push off the Earth’s surface, so the rockets tend to coast most of the time they’re in space.

Ion engines, on the other hand, accelerate electrically charged atoms, or ions, through an electric field, thereby pushing the spacecraft in the opposite direction. They provide much less thrust at a given moment than do chemical rockets, which means they can’t break free of the Earth’s gravity on their own.

But once in space, they can give a continuous push for years, like a steady breeze at the back of a sailboat, accelerating gradually until they’re moving faster than chemical rockets.

Several space missions have already used ion engines, including NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is en route to the asteroids Vesta and CeresMovie Camera, and Japan’s spacecraft Hayabusa, which rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

But a new engine, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), will have much more “oomph” than previous ones. That’s because it uses a radio frequency generator, similar to transmitters used to broadcast radio shows, to heat the charged particles, or plasma.

The engine is being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which was founded in 2005 by plasma physicist and former space shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz.

As hot as the sun

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas.

The plasma could produce thrust on its own if it were shot out of the rocket, but not very efficiently. To optimise efficiency, the rocket’s second stage then heats the ions to about a million degrees, a temperature comparable to that at the centre of the sun.

It does this by taking advantage of the fact that in a strong magnetic field – like those produced by superconducting magnets in the engine, ions spin at a fixed frequency. The radio frequency generator is then tuned to that same frequency, injecting extra energy into the ions.

High power

Strong magnetic fields then channel the plasma out the back of the engine, propelling the rocket in the opposite direction.

Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines, which simply accelerate their plasma by sending it through a series of metal grids with different voltages. In that setup, ions colliding with the grid tend to erode it, limiting the power and lifetime of the rocket. VASIMR’s radio frequency generator gets around that problem by never coming into contact with the ions.

“It’s the most powerful superconducting plasma source ever, as far as we know,” says Jared Squire, director of research at Ad Astra.

Scientists at Ad Astra began tests of the engine’s second stage – which heats the plasma – last week. So far, team members have run the two-stage engine at a power of 50 kilowatts. But they hope to ramp up to 200 kW of power in ongoing tests, enough to provide about a pound of thrust. That may not sound like much, but in space it can propel up to two tonnes of cargo, reaching Jupiter in about 19 months from a starting position relatively close to the sun, says Squire.

Orbital boosts

Ad Astra and NASA have agreed to test fire the rocket in space, attached to the International Space Station in 2012 or 2013. Potentially, VASIMR could provide the periodic boosts needed to keep the ISS in its orbit.

At its current power level, VASIMR could be run entirely on solar energy. Squire says it would make a good Earth-orbit tugboat, pulling satellites to different orbits. It could also shuttle cargo to a lunar base, and because it could travel relatively quickly, it could be deployed to dangerous asteroids to gravitationally nudge them off course years before they would reach Earth.

To travel to Mars in 39 days, however, the engine would need 1000 times more power than solar energy could provide. For that, VASIMR would need an onboard nuclear reactor. Early versions of the reactor technology were used from the 1960s to the 1980s by the Soviet Union, but have not been used in space since and would take time to develop. “That would be quite a ways down the line,” Squire says.

Ion engine could one day power 39 day trips to Mars