Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space

Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.

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An (Almost) Free Apollo-Era Rocket

According to recent news reports, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama wants to give away a piece of history — an engineering test article of a Saturn I Block I booster. The catch? You’ll need to pay to haul it off, which will cost about $250,000. According to C|Net, the offer appears to be for museums and schools, but it’s likely that price tag would probably scare most private buyers off anyway.

On the other hand, if you are a museum, library, school, or university, you can score cheap or free NASA stuff using their GSAXcess portal. In general, you do have to pay shipping. For example, a flexible thermal blanket from the shuttle costs $37.28. A heat tile runs about $25.

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The Death Of A Weather Satellite As Seen By SDR

What is this world coming to when a weather satellite that was designed for a two-year mission starts to fail 21 years after launch? I mean, really — where’s the pride these days?

All kidding aside, it seems like NOAA-15, a satellite launched in 1998 to monitor surface temperatures and other meteorologic and climatologic parameters, has recently started showing its age. This is the way of things, and generally the decommissioning of a satellite is of little note to the general public, except possibly when it deorbits in a spectacular but brief display across the sky.

But NOAA-15 and her sister satellites have a keen following among a community of enthusiasts who spend their time teasing signals from them as they whiz overhead, using homemade antennas and cheap SDR receivers. It was these hobbyists who were among the first to notice NOAA-15’s woes, and over the past weeks they’ve been busy alternately lamenting and celebrating as the satellite’s signals come and go. Their on-again, off-again romance with the satellite is worth a look, as is the what exactly is going wrong with this bird in the first place.

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Recreating Space Cameras

[Cole Price] describes himself as a photographer and a space nerd. We’ll give that to him since his web site clearly shows a love of cameras and a love of the NASA programs from the 1960s. [Cole] has painstakingly made replicas of cameras used in the space program including a Hasselblad 500C used on a Mercury flight and another Hasselblad used during Apollo 11. His work is on display in several venues — for example, the 500C is in the Carl Zeiss headquarters building.

[Cole’s] only made a detailed post about 500C and a teaser about the Apollo 11 camera. However, there’s a lot of detail about what NASA — and an RCA technician named [Red Williams] — did to get the camera space-ready.

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SpaceX Clips Dragon’s Wings After Investigation

When the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached orbit for the first time in 2010, it was a historic achievement. But to qualify for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the capsule also needed to demonstrate that it could return safely to Earth. Its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, had wings that let it glide home and land like a plane. But in returning to the classic capsule design of earlier spacecraft, SpaceX was forced to rely on a technique not used by American spacecraft since the 1970s: parachutes and an ocean splashdown.

The Dragon’s descent under parachute, splashdown, and subsequent successful recovery paved the way for SpaceX to begin a series of resupply missions to the International Space Station that continue to this day. But not everyone at SpaceX was satisfied with their 21st century spacecraft having to perform such an anachronistic landing. At a post-mission press conference, CEO Elon Musk told those in attendance that eventually the Dragon would be able to make a pinpoint touchdown using thrusters and deployable landing gear:

The architecture that you observed today is obviously similar to what was employed in the Apollo era, but the next generation Dragon, the Crew Dragon, we’re actually going to be aiming for a propulsive landing with gear. We’ll still have the parachutes as a backup, but it’s going to be a precision landing, you could literally land on something the size of a helipad propulsively with gear, refuel, and take off again.

But just shy of a decade later, the violent explosion of the first space worthy Crew Dragon has become the final nail in the coffin for Elon’s dream of manned space capsules landing like helicopters. In truth, the future of this particular capability was already looking quite dim given NASA’s preference for a more pragmatic approach to returning their astronauts from space. But Crew Dragon design changes slated to be implemented in light of findings made during the accident report will all but completely remove the possibility of Dragon ever performing a propulsive landing.

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