Tag Archives: space exploration

The Revolutionary New Propulsion Engine That Even Scientists Didn’t Believe Was Possible

Roger Shawyer is one of the most persistent and driven individuals in the world.

For years, he has been working on a new type of propulsion engine that could theoretically run forever without needing any fuel. He calls his device the EmDrive.

The engine works by bouncing around microwave radiation in a small space to produce thrust, rather than burning a propellant fuel. The microwaves are produced by solar power which is generated from panels on the outside of the engine.

Roger Shawyer (left), receiving a DTI SMART Award for his EmDrive concept in August 2001 . Click to enlarge

When he first began proposing the idea for a quantum vacuum plasma thruster, Shawyer was laughed at. Most scientists he talked to told him the idea was ludicrous, saying that (among other issues) it defied the theory of conservation of momentum.

Only a group of Chinese scientists was willing to actually try out the idea. In 2009, they built a model of Shawyer’s engine that actually worked, producing enough thrust to power a small satellite.

Even then, many people weren’t convinced. But recently, American scientist Guido Fetta and a team at NASA Eagleworks (NASA’s experimental technologies division) recreated the engine for themselves, and found that the design actually does in fact work.

NASA’s Eagleworks Labs logo

In a statement about their findings, the NASA research team said:

“Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

The whole mystery behind the engine stems from the difference between how physics operates on a large scale in our every day world, and how it operates on the microscopic, quantum level (ie. quantum physics).

When we observe molecules in their most basic form, they often don’t follow the same rules of physics that govern our visible world.

For example, if you throw a tennis ball off of a wall, you wouldn’t expect it to speed up after hitting the wall- its acceleration is totally dependent on how much force you release the ball with.

Momentum (p) is equal to Mass (m) times Velocity (v). The law of conservation of momentum says that for large objects like a tennis ball, the momentum when the ball leaves the wall must be exactly the same as when it hit the wall (minus whatever force is lost to friction). Click to enlarge

But on the quantum level, things change. Shawyer describes the principles of how the engine works here, but the wording is a bit overly scientific if you’re not an engineer, so I’ll try to break it down as best I can.

Basically, the microwave particles that the EmDrive uses can travel extremely fast (up to almost the speed of light). Because of this high velocity, the particles exert a force (albeit a very, very small one) on the reflective inner walls of the engine.

So, each reflector has a different velocity at its surface, depending on how many radiation molecules are hitting it and how fast they’re moving. Imagine someone throwing marbles at the surface of a number of drums- the drum being hit by the largest amount of fast-moving marbles is going to be vibrating the most.

The microwaves cause vibrations on the reflectors similar to how a droplet creates ripples in the water. However, in water, this energy can dissipate outwards, whereas is the EmDrive, this energy gets stored on the surface of the reflector

The radiation molecules have virtually no mass. Because of this, their momentum can actually be increased by bouncing them from a reflector with a lower surface velocity to one with a higher surface velocity. This added momentum comes from the difference in force between the two surfaces.

By taking advantage of this principle and carefully designing the inner geometry of the thruster, Shawyer was able to create a compartment that perfectly bounced the microwave radiation between reflectors, steadily increasing its momentum until it gets released out of the end as thrust.

A diagram of the thrust chamber, illustrating the concept. Click to enlarge

And since the microwaves are generated using solar panels, the engine could theoretically work forever, or at least until its hardware fails.

There still needs to be much more extensive testing to prove that the engine can be replicated and utilized on a larger scale, but the basic concept has been demonstrated twice now.

The lesson: never stop pursuing your dreams. The people who make the biggest impacts on our society are usually people who have been called crazy more than a handful of times throughout their lives.

So, to you Roger Shawyer: thanks for being a stubborn dreamer. I hope your engine plays a big role in revolutionizing this era of space exloration and discovery!

(h/t Sploid)


NASA’s Opportunity Rover Just Set the Off-World Driving Distance Record

NASA’s Opportunity rover landed on the surface of Mars in January of 2004. As of Sunday (July 26), the Opportunity rover had driven a total distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers).

Opportunity took the top spot in total off-world distance traveled by surpassing Russia’s Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which traveled a total distance of 39 kilometers across the surface of the moon between January and May of 1973.

The Russian rover helped to bring about a golden age of space exploration in the 70s. As a sign of respect, the Opportunity rover’s operators decided to commemorate the Russian rover by naming one of the first craters they encountered after it.

Tracing the path that Opportunity has taken since it landed on Mars in 2004. On the left rim of the large Endeavor Crater, you can see the Lunokhod 2 crater. Click to enlarge (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/NMMNHS)

The craziest part of this record is that the Opportunity rover was only expected to travel a short distance when it was first sent to Mars in 2004. Here’s John Callas, who manages the Mars Exploration Project at NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California:

“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”

The Opportunity rover is collecting data on Mars as part of a long-term plan for a manned mission to the planet around the year 2030.

The infographic below compares the distances driven by different rovers throughout the years. Click to enlarge (courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech):

Read the original story from NASA here.

Watch Astronauts Play Soccer and Do Goal Celebrations in Zero Gravity on the ISS (Video)

The World Cup is in full swing, with billions of people tuning in to watch the games all over the planet. But there are also a couple of guys watching the world’s largest sporting event from space.

To commemorate the start of the tournament, NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Steve Swanson joined German astronaut Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency to create this awesome video of them practicing some moves in zero-G.

Then yesterday they released this video of their best goal celebrations:

This is the second World Cup that astronauts have viewed from the International Space Station (they also tuned in for the 2010 Cup). It’s pretty fitting that the astronauts are watching a tournament that brings together countries from all over the world- the ISS itself was built by five different space agencies representing 15 different countries.

The German and American astronauts actually made a bet over yesterday’s game: if the U.S. won, they could draw a U.S. flag on Gerst’s bald head. But if the U.S. lost, both the American’s had to shave their heads. I hope Gerst isn’t rubbing in that German win too much though.

(h/t Space.com)

Ellen Stofan, Chief NASA Scientist: Our plan is to colonize Mars

Ellen Stofan, is one of NASA’s chief scientists, and is the principal advisor to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the agency’s science programs, planning and investments.

Yesterday, she sat down for an interview with The Guardian to talk about NASA, Mars, space and the future of space exploration and colonization.

NASA Scientist Ellen Stofan

During the interview, the host asked Stofan the following question:

“Is Nasa going to send humans to Mars just to show that it can?”

Stofan responded,

“Well, I’m biased because I’m a field geologist. Humans can actually read a landscape, go through a lot of rocks – crack them open, throw them, pick up the next one. Rovers are great, they do amazing science, but it is a lot more tedious process – they go much less far than a human can cover in a day. Having humans on the surface is how I think we are going to be able to demonstrate totally conclusively that life did evolve on Mars.”

The interviewer responded with the following:

“There is a lot of talk about settling Mars. Will Nasa be bringing its astronauts back?”

Stofan had this to say:

“We would definitely plan on bringing them back. We like to talk about pioneering Mars rather than just exploring Mars, because once we get to Mars we will set up some sort of permanent presence.”

Stofan also answered questions about NASA’s search for extra-terrestrial life, the risks of contaminating Mars, and space junk, among other things. You can listen to the interview below or read more of the transcripts from The Guardian here.

‘Moonhouse’ Crowdfunding Project Aims to Build First House on the Moon (Video)

Here at the Higher Learning we try to put a strong focus on space exploration and the space industry as it continues to develop and progress.

Just this month an artist named Mikael Genberg and representatives supporting  a project called “the Moonhouse project”, announced plans to land a small, robotic, self-assembling house on the surface of the Moon.

Mikael Genberg

It would be the first art piece on the lunar surface, symbolic of both our accomplishments in space so far and the direction we are heading in the future as colonization becomes feasible.

The Moonhouse will be red with white gables, resembling, “a typical Swedish red cottage,” says its artist. Measuring 2 by 3 meters (6 ½ x 10 feet) at the base, it will be more of an art project than actual human living quarters.

Some more info on the Moonhouse. Click to enlarge

The artist leading the Moonhouse project says the house will stand as a symbol of,

“prosperity, of thinking bigger thoughts, breaking new mental barriers and actually making this planet a lot better.”

The video below was created by the Moonhouse project. Check it out to learn more about the details of their plan…

The Moonhouse is designed to fly to the moon folded up in a shoebox-sized package. After being placed on the moon, the art installation will unfold and self-assemble as an 8-foot-tall (2.5 meters) red house. It’s expected to take anywhere from five to 15 minutes for the Moonhouse to assemble.

There are a number of potential structures. The dark lines represent carbon fiber tape to support the house. The lighter lines represent long, flat metal rods to help stiffen the fabric

According to Space.com:

“The team plans to send the project up to space in late 2015 atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the group Astrobotic — a private spaceflight team competing for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize grand prize.”

Before this project can become a reality, the Moonhouse project needs help from people here on Earth. The project is attempting to raise $15 million in a 186 day period in order to fund the project. Currently the Moonhouse project is far from it’s fundraising goal, last time I checked they were only at around $5,000.

That is why, if you support the project, you should make a contribution and spread the word so this project can actually happen.

In fact, people that pledge at least $50 will get their names engraved inside the real Moonhouse that will self-assemble on the lunar surface. Every dollar donated brings this project 82 feet closer to the Moon, according to Genberg.

Help Support The Moonhouse Project Here!

Read the full story from Space.com here. You can check out the Moonhouse project’s official website here.


Blowing the Top Off a Mountain to Build a Telescope So Big It Can See Signs of Life On Other Planets

In a few short weeks, engineers in the Chilean Coastal Ranges of the Andes Mountains in South America will be blowing off the top of Cerro Armazones.  Standing at 10,000 feet, it’s one of the tallest peaks in the region. Here’s Gird Hudepohl, the head engineer for the project:

“We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”

Cerro Armazones, future site of the world’s largest telescope (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Coastal Ranges region is extremely arid, which increases visibility since water vapor in the air obscures a telescope’s vision (this is also why telescopes at high elevations have much better vision than those closer to sea level).

This isn’t Hudepohl’s first rodeo. He works for the European Southern Observatory and was in charge of the demolition of another nearby peak (Cerro Paranal) which is now home to one of the world’s most advanced observatories.

The observatory at Cerro Paranal is equipped with four VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), each the size of “a block of flats” and each equipped with an 8m wide primary mirror (thats more than 24 feet).

Here’s some pictures of the European Southern Observatory (click an image to enlarge):

The new telescope, however, will be bigger than all four of those VLTs combined. The E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope- they’re not very creative with the names obviously) will be equipped with a massive 39m (128ft) primary mirror made up 800 segments, each 1.4 meters in diameter but only a few centimeters thick. Each segment must be calibrated with microscopic precision for the telescope to function correctly.

When it’s finished (projected completion is 2025), the telescope will be housed in a 74m (~243ft) dome and weigh in at almost 3,000 tons. The project has a price tag of $1.34 billion.

Artist rendering of the completed E-ELT

The telescope is obviously extremely expensive, but the potential benefits it will provide are well worth it. Here’s Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore explaining why the E-ELT will be such a major breakthrough:

“[Right now] we can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Read the full story from The Guardian here.

NASA Illustrations from Before the Days of Computer Animation (Gallery)

These days, pretty much all NASA illustrations use CGI (computer-generated imagery). But there was a time before computer animation when NASA hired artists to render illustrations of their various potential concepts.

Here’s a few particularly impressive ones (click an image to enlarge):

All images courtesy of NASA.