NASA Challenge Offers Prizes For Sprouting Astronaut Food Systems

Humans have unfortunately not yet evolved the ability to photosynthesize or recharge from an electricity source, which is why astronauts well into the future of spaceflight will need to have access to food sources. Developing ways to grow food in space is the focus of the new Deep Space Food Challenge that was just launched by NASA and Canada’s Space Agency (CSA).

With a total of twenty $25,000 USD prizes for US contestants and ten $30,000 CAD prizes for the Canucks in Phase 1 of the challenge, there’s some financial incentive as well. In Phase 2, the winning teams of the concept phase have to show off their kitchen skills, and in the final Phase 3 (deadline by Fall 2023) the full food growing system has to be demonstrated.

The possible systems here would likely involve some kind of hydroponics, aeroponics or even aquaponics, to save the weight of lugging kilograms of soil into space. None of this is truly new technology, but cramming it into a package that would be able to supply a crew of four with enough food during a three-year mission does seem fairly challenging.

The NASA rules are covered in their Phase 1 Rules PDF document. While international teams are also welcome to compete, they cannot receive any prizes beyond recognition, and Chinese citizens or companies with links to China are not to allowed to compete at all.

Failed Test Could Further Delay NASA’s Troubled SLS Rocket

The January 16th “Green Run” test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was intended to be the final milestone before the super heavy-lift booster would be moved to Cape Canaveral ahead of its inaugural Artemis I mission in November 2021. The full duration static fire test was designed to simulate a typical launch, with the rocket’s main engines burning for approximately eight minutes at maximum power. But despite a thunderous start start, the vehicle’s onboard systems triggered an automatic abort after just 67 seconds; making it the latest in a long line of disappointments surrounding the controversial booster.

When it was proposed in 2011, the SLS seemed so simple. Rather than spending the time and money required to develop a completely new rocket, the super heavy-lift booster would be based on lightly modified versions of Space Shuttle components. All engineers had to do was attach four of the Orbiter’s RS-25 engines to the bottom of an enlarged External Tank and strap on a pair of similarly elongated Solid Rocket Boosters. In place of the complex winged Orbiter, crew and cargo would ride atop the rocket using an upper stage and capsule not unlike what was used in the Apollo program.

The SLS core stage is rolled out for testing.

There’s very little that could be called “easy” when it comes to spaceflight, but the SLS was certainly designed to take the path of least resistance. By using flight-proven components assembled in existing production facilities, NASA estimated that the first SLS could be ready for a test flight in 2016.

If everything went according to schedule, the agency expected it would be ready to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit by the early 2020s. Just in time to meet the aspirational goals laid out by President Obama in a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, including the crewed exploitation of a nearby asteroid by 2025 and a potential mission to Mars in the 2030s.

But of course, none of that ever happened. By the time SLS was expected to make its first flight in 2016, with nearly $10 billion already spent on the program, only a few structural test articles had actually been assembled. Each year NASA pushed back the date for the booster’s first shakedown flight, as the project sailed past deadlines in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. After the recent engine test ended before engineers were able to collect the data necessary to ensure the vehicle could safely perform a full-duration burn, outgoing NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was too early to tell if the booster would still fly this year.

What went wrong? As commercial entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin move in leaps and bounds, NASA seems stuck in the past. How did such a comparatively simple project get so far behind schedule and over budget?

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A New Era Of Spacecraft Delivers Science On Time

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop on its final mission in 2011, it was truly the end of an era. Few could deny that the program had become too complex and expensive to keep running, but even still, humanity’s ability to do useful work in low Earth orbit took a serious hit with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Worse, there was no indication of when or if another spacecraft would be developed that could truly rival the capabilities of the winged orbiters first conceived in the late 1960s.

While its primary function was to carry large payloads such as satellites into orbit, the Shuttle’s ability to retrieve objects from space and bring them back was arguably just as important. Throughout its storied career, sensitive experiments conducted at the International Space Station or aboard the Orbiter itself were returned gently to Earth thanks to the craft’s unique design. Unlike traditional spacecraft that ended their flight with a rough splashdown in the open ocean, the Shuttle eased itself down to the tarmac like an airplane. Once landed, experiments could be quickly unloaded and transferred to the nearby Space Station Processing Facility where science teams would be waiting to perform further processing or analysis.

Atlantis is towed from the runway for payload processing.

For 30 years, the Space Shuttle and its assorted facilities at Kennedy Space Center provided a reliable way to deliver fragile or time-sensitive scientific experiments into the hands of researchers just a few hours after leaving orbit. It was a valuable service that simply didn’t exist before the Shuttle, and one that scientists have been deprived of ever since its retirement.

Until now. With the successful splashdown of the first Cargo Dragon 2 off the coast of Florida, NASA is one step closer to regaining a critical capability it hasn’t had for a decade. While it’s still not quite as convenient as simply rolling the Shuttle into the Orbiter Processing Facility after a mission, the fact that SpaceX can guide their capsule down into the waters near the Space Coast greatly reduces the time required to return experiments to the researchers who designed them.

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The Day The Russians And Americans Met 135 Miles Up

If you watched the original Star Trek series, you’d assume there was no way the Federation would ever work with the Klingons. But eventually the two became great allies despite their cultural differences. There was a time when it seemed like the United States and Russia would never be friends — as much as nations can be friends. Yet today, the two powers cooperate on a number of fronts.

One notable area of cooperation is in spaceflight, and that also was one of the first areas where the two were able to get together in a cooperative fashion, meeting for the first time in orbit, 135 miles up.  The mission also marks the ultimate voyage of the Apollo spacecraft, a return to space for the USSR’s luckiest astronauts, and the maiden flight of NASA’s oldest astronaut. The ability to link US and Soviet capsules in space would pave the way for the International Space Station.  The Apollo-Soyuz mission was nothing if not historic, but also more relevant than ever as more nations become spacefaring. Continue reading “The Day The Russians And Americans Met 135 Miles Up”

Still Working After All These Years: The Voyager Plasma Wave Subsystem

NASA is always keen to highlight the space agency’s many successes, and rightly so — those who pay for these expensive projects have a right to know what they’re getting for their money. And so the news was recently sprinkled with stories of the discovery of electron bursts beyond the edge of our solar system, caused by shock waves from coronal mass ejection (CME) from our Sun reflecting and accelerating electrons in interstellar plasmas. It’s a novel mechanism and an exciting discovery that changes a lot of assumptions about what happens out in the lonely space outside of the Sun’s influence.

The recent discovery is impressive in its own right, but it’s even more stunning when you dig into the details of how it was made: by the 43-year-old Voyager spacecraft, each now about 17 light-hours away from Earth, and each carrying an instrument so simple and efficient that they’re still working all after this time — and which very nearly were left out of the mission’s science payload.

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2020: As The Hardware World Turns

By pretty much any metric you care to use, 2020 has been an unforgettable year. Usually that would be a positive thing, but this time around it’s a bit more complicated. The global pandemic, unprecedented in modern times, impacted the way we work, learn, and gather. Some will look back on their time in lockdown as productive, if a bit lonely. Other’s have had their entire way of life uprooted, with no indication as to when or if things will ever return to normal. Whatever “normal” is at this point.

But even in the face of such adversity, there have been bright spots for our community. With traditional gatherings out of the question, many long-running tech conferences moved over to a virtual format that allowed a larger and more diverse array of presenters and attendees than would have been possible in the past. We also saw hackers and makers all over the planet devote their skills and tools to the production of personal protective equipment (PPE). In a turn of events few could have predicted, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic helped demonstrate the validity of hyperlocal manufacturing in a way that’s never happened before.

For better or for worse, most of us will associate 2020 with COVID-19 for the rest of our lives. Really, how could we not? But over these last twelve months we’ve borne witness to plenty of stories that are just as deserving of a spot in our collective memories. As we approach the twilight hours of this most ponderous year, let’s take a look back at some of the most interesting themes that touched our little corner of the tech world this year.

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Adding Space Music To The Astronomy Toolbox

Astronomy fans were recently treated to the Great Conjunction, where Jupiter and Saturn appear close together from the perspective of our planet Earth. Astronomy has given us this and many other magnificent sights, but we can get other senses involved. Science News tells of explorations into adapting our sense of hearing into tools of astronomical data analysis.

Data visualization has long been a part of astronomy, but they’re not restricted to charts and graphs that require a trained background to interpret. Every “image” generated using data from radio telescopes (like the recently-lost Arecibo facility) are a visualization of data from outside the visible spectrum. Visualizations also include crowd pleasing false-color images such as The Pillars of Creation published by NASA where interstellar emissions captured by science instruments are remapped to colors in the visible spectrum. The results are equal parts art and science, and can be appreciated from either perspective.

Data sonification is a whole other toolset with different strengths. Our visual system evolved ability to pick out edges and patterns in spatial plots, which we exploit for data visualization. In contrast our aural system evolved ability to process data in the frequency domain, and the challenge is to figure out how to use those abilities to gain scientifically relevant data insight. For now this field of work is more art than science, but it does open another venue for the visually impaired. Some of whom are already active contributors in astronomy and interested in applying their well-developed sense of hearing to their work.

Of course there’s no reason this has to be restricted to astronomy. A few months ago we covered a project for sonification of DNA data. It doesn’t take much to get started, as shown in this student sonification project. We certainly have no shortage of projects that make interesting sounds on this site, perhaps one of them will be the key.