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10-year plan for space research

Artist's impression of a star with an accretion disc

Astronomers are on a quest to discover and explore the physical laws governing matter, space and time.

SIXTY YEARS OF BUILDING ROCKETS, walking on the Moon and exploring the outer reaches of space have taught us lots about life, the universe and everything.

But what should we study in the coming decades? Lots of strange stuff, says a new report that provides NASA with a blueprint for the next 10 years of fundamental physics research in space.

“When Einstein developed his theory of relativity, no one at the time knew exactly how it could be applied. Yet that basic, scientific discovery opened many doors for us, including the development of technology that led to Global Positioning Systems (GPS),” says Rob Duncan, University of Missouri Vice Chancellor for Research, and leader of the report team.

“Many trillion-dollar technologies are based on these ‘basic science’ discoveries, so it is vital that we continue to explore these scientific questions that, we hope, will continue to lead to technological advancement,” says Duncan.

“We must continue to develop knowledge out of our curiosity alone, since that often leads to great opportunities,” he adds. “If we stop exploring the unknown, then we will fail to discover things that may be of great importance to our economy in ways that may be difficult to predict.”

Two new quests

Duncan’s committee developed two overarching “quests” and four specific “thrusts” as part of the report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era”.

The first quest is to discover and explore the physical laws governing matter, space and time.

Artist's impression of a black hole

NASA is being urged to study weird matter, quantum gases and other strange stuff.

The second quest is to discover and understand how complex systems are organised. For example, ferns grow with a distinct symmetry and structure to their leaves that are similar to the overall shape of the whole plant.

This is an example of “self-similarity” in nature, which could be explored in greater detail in space.

Thrusting ahead

The four specific thrusts that the committee recommended NASA explore in the coming decade are:

Soft Condensed Matter Physics and Complex Fluids. While some examples exist of this new class of materials, understanding the organising principles of these new materials, which are typically very strong but very light, could advance materials science dramatically on earth.

Precision Measurements of Fundamental Forces and Symmetries. This would help scientists determine what is not known about the composition and structure of the universe. For example, some cosmic rays have 100 billion times more energy than the highest energy particles ever produced in “atom smashers” on earth.

Quantum Gases. Understanding quantum gases can lead to a much better understanding of how particles fundamentally interact with each other. Examples of these materials include superconductors and superfluids. Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with no resistance while superfluids are those fluids (such as helium at very low temperatures) that have no resistance to fluid flow.

Condensed Matter. As matter changes into different states, such as solid, liquid and gas, phase changes happen that are similar throughout nature. By studying these changes in space, scientists can alleviate the complication of gravity and better understand the physics effecting these changes.

“This is a fascinating time to be a scientist,” says Duncan. “As NASA moves forward and develops a new space mission, we hope that this report will help guide the scientific portion of space exploration.”

“The possibilities of discovery are endless.”

Adapted from information issued by the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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NASA’s new target – asteroids!

NASA HAS ANNOUNCED its intention to pursue manned missions to an asteroid and possibly one of the moons of Mars.

Before it can do so, the space agency needs a new generation of manned spacecraft that can accomplish long-duration missions much further away from the Earth than the Moon is.

This video comes from Lockheed-Martin, manufacturers of Orion, slated to be the USA’s next government-owned manned spacecraft. Orion will be capable of carrying out the asteroid and Martian moon missions.

Adapted from information issued by Lockheed-Martin.

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Shuttle launch video

AMAZING VIDEO of NASA’s space shuttle Discovery launching on its final flight, mission STS-133, to the International Space Station.

Video courtesy NASA.

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Boiling over in zero-g

HERE ON EARTH, boiling is used for tasks ranging from cooking and heating to power generation. In space, boiling may be used for power generation and other applications.

But because boiling works differently in a zero-gravity environment, it is difficult to design hardware that will not overheat or cause other problems.

University of Maryland Professor Jungho Kim of the A. James Clark School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with John McQuillen, project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre in Ohio, to study how boiling is altered in zero-gravity.

Their experiment, the Microheater Array Boiling Experiment (MABE), launched on the space shuttle Discovery on February 24, 2011, bound for a long-term operation aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The experiment has already been tested on NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet’ (‘weightlessness aircraft’) and the European Space Agency’s Parabolic Flight Campaign in France.

The results could help engineers design space hardware that uses boiling for multiple applications.

“In space, boiling may be required to generate vapour to power turbines in some advanced concepts for power generation, for temperature control aboard spacecraft, and for water purification,” says Kim.

The video at the top of the page shows the experimenters testing the equipment aboard the NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet’…an aircraft that flies parabolic trajectories to simulate short periods of weightlessness. The video below is a close-up of one of the experiments:

How it works

When a liquid is boiled on Earth, vapour, which is less dense than liquid, is removed from heated surfaces through the action of buoyancy. In zero-gravity, the buoyancy force becomes negligible and vapour can blanket the heated surfaces rather than moving away, potentially leading the surfaces to a state known as critical heat flux.

Critical heat flux occurs when a heater or plate becomes too hot, restricting the flow of liquid to the surface and causing the plate to overheat and potentially burn out.

Since liquids boil differently in space, an understanding of how these fluids behave can improve the reliability and expand the applications of space exploration hardware.

The experiment that will take place on the ISS will use two arrays of platinum microheaters bonded to a quartz plate. The arrays measure 7mm and 2.7mm across. The heaters are warmed when electricity is applied, and spaces between the heater lines will allow the boiling process to be seen through the transparent quartz. Boiling of a refrigerant-like fluid (FC-72) will be filmed at high speed and the video sent back to Earth along with the heater data in real-time for analysis.

More Information: Video about zero-G flight experiments

Adapted from information issued by the University of Maryland.

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Designing capsules for space

WHY WAS THE APOLLO capsule shaped like a gumdrop? Learn about the blunt-shaped capsules used for past and present NASA spacecraft in this NASA video, which shows how engineers come up with novel and useful designs.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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ATV docks with Space Station

The European Space Agency’s Johannes Kepler Automated Transfer Vehicle, or space cargo ship, has docked with the International Space Station … as seen in the video footage above.

The video below explains the launch and purpose of the ATV.

Videos courtesy ESA.

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Discovery’s final flight

NASA IS ABOUT TO LAUNCH space shuttle Discovery on its final voyage into space. The STS-133 mission will take extra equipment and spare parts to the International Space Station.

Lift-off is due at 8:50am Sydney time on Friday, February 25 (4:50pm US EST on Thursday, February 24).

The video above is a 10-minute-long NASA production that describes Discovery’s history and covers the STS-133 flight. Note that this video was produced in October 2010, before the original launch date of November 2010. Launch was delayed until this month due to a problem with the external fuel tank. Also, there has been one substitution in the crew.

The video below is a 24-minute-long NASA briefing that explains what the astronauts will be doing during the mission, and includes amazing computer-generated graphics.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Discovery set to launch this week

HERE IS NASA’S LATEST video update, which—amongst other news—includes details of the last flight of space shuttle Discovery, due for lift-off at 8:50am Sydney time on Friday, February 25 (4:50pm Thursday Feb 24, US EST).

Carried aboard Discovery will be Robonaut 2 (R2), the first humanoid robot in space. Once R2 is unpacked inside the International Space Station—likely several months after it arrives—it will be initially operated inside the Destiny laboratory for operational testing, but over time, both its territory and its applications could expand.

Finally, the video below is the STS-133 mission Flight Readiness Review Briefing. It gives a lot more information about Discovery’s mission and preparations for launch. Be warned though – it is 50 minutes long, so you might need to grab a snack to keep you going.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Image credit: NASA / Jack Pfaller.

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Johannes Kepler to reach orbit

IN RECENT WEEKS two space freighters, the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV, have arrived at the International Space Station. But the most important logistics spacecraft for the ISS is Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. ATV-2, also known as Johannes Kepler, is to be launched from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying 7 tonnes of cargo.

Launch is due at 22:13:27 UTC on February 15 (19:13:27 Kourou time or 23:13:27 Central European Time), which is 9:13am on February 16, Sydney time in Australia.

The two videos shown here, courtesy of the European Space Agency, describe the purpose of the mission.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Europe’s year ahead in space

THIS VIDEO FROM THE European Space Agency (ESA) gives a preview of what to expect in 2011.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight: it was half a century ago that Yuri Gagarin made his historic orbit around our planet. Today, cosmonauts and astronauts from many nations are living and working together aboard the International Space Station.

Among them is ESA’s Paolo Nespoli, due to return in May from the 3rd European long-duration stay. He will later be joined by fellow ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori aboard one of the last space shuttle missions.

Other important ESA missions in 2011 are the debut of the second ATV unmanned cargo craft, planned for launch by Ariane 5 in February. Later, Europe’s spaceport in French Guyana will see the inaugural launches of the Russian Soyuz rocket and the new Vega.

ESA is also expecting interesting results from its Earth observing satellites and its Mars probe, Mars Express.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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