Since 1951, NASA (known in those pre-space days as NACA) and the United States Air Force have used the “X” designation for experimental aircraft that push technological boundaries. The best known of these vehicles, such as the X-1 and X-15, were used to study flight at extreme altitude and speed. Several fighter jets got their start as X-planes over the decades, and a number of hypersonic scramjet vehicles have flown under the banner. As such, the X-planes are often thought of as the epitome of speed and maneuverability.
So the X-57 Maxwell, NASA’s first piloted X-plane in two decades, might seem like something of a departure from the blistering performance of its predecessors. It’s not going to fly very fast, it won’t be making any high-G turns, and it certainly won’t be clawing its way through the upper atmosphere. The crew’s flight gear won’t even be anything more exotic than a polo and a pair of shorts. As far as cutting-edge experimental aircraft go, the X-57 is about as laid back as it gets.
But like previous X-planes, the Maxwell will one day be looked back on as a technological milestone of its own. Just as the X-1 helped usher in the era of supersonic flight, the X-57 has been developed so engineers can better understand the unique challenges of piloted electric aircraft. Before they can operate in the public airspace, the performance characteristics and limitations of electric planes must be explored in real-world scenarios. The experiments performed with the X-57 will help guide certification programs and government rule making that needs to be in place before such aircraft can operate on a large scale.
Astronomy is undoubtedly one of the most exciting subjects in physics. Especially the search for exoplanets has been a thriving field in the last decades. While the first exoplanet was only discovered in 1992, there are now 4,144 confirmed exoplanets (as of 2nd April 2020). Naturally, we Sci-Fi lovers are most interested in the 55 potentially habitable exoplanets. Unfortunately, taking an image of an Earth 2.0 with enough detail to identify potential features of life is impossible with conventional telescopes.
This telescope isn’t like something you’d set up in your back yard, either. It’s more similar to the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico which uses natural topography to help form the telescope. The proposed telescope on the far side of the moon would use a robot to deploy a net along a fairly large crater to act as a parabolic dish, while another robot would suspend the receiver above the crater. The large size is necessary for viewing deep into space, but is also because of the low-frequency radio signals they hope to capture.
Building a dish like this on the moon is sure to be no easy task, especially since remote control on the far side of the moon is difficult for precisely the reasons that make this a good location for a telescope. But with an appropriate amount of funding and some sufficiently autonomous robots it should be possible. Plus, you never know what you’ll find when looking deep into space.
Under the current Administration, NASA has been tasked with returning American astronauts to the Moon as quickly as possible. The Artemis program would launch a crewed mission to our nearest celestial neighbor as soon as 2024, and establish a system for sustainable exploration and habitation by 2028. It’s an extremely aggressive timeline, to put it mildly.
To have any chance of meeting these goals, NASA will have to enlist the help of not only its international partners, but private industry. There simply isn’t enough time for the agency to design, build, and test all of the hardware that will eventually be required for any sort of sustained presence on or around the Moon. By awarding a series of contracts, NASA plans to offload some of the logistical components of the Artemis program to qualified companies and agencies.
For anyone who’s been following the New Space race these last few years, it should come as no surprise to hear that SpaceX has already been awarded one of these lucrative logistics contracts. They’ve been selected as the first commercial provider for cargo deliveries to Gateway, a small space station that NASA intendeds to operate in lunar orbit. Considering SpaceX already has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, they were the ideal candidate to offer similar services for a future lunar outpost.
But that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. The so-called “Gateway Logistics Services” contract stipulates that providers must be able to deliver at least 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds) of pressurized cargo and 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of unpressurized cargo to lunar orbit. That’s beyond the capabilities of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which was only designed to service low Earth orbit.
To complete this new mission, the company is proposing a new vehicle they’re calling the Dragon XL that would ride to orbit on the Falcon Heavy booster. But even for this New Space darling, there’s not a lot of time to design, test, and build a brand-new spacecraft. To get the Dragon XL flying as quickly as possible, SpaceX is going to need to strip the craft down to the bare minimum.
NASA would like you to help them explore — not space — but the bottom of the ocean. For now, you’ll need an Apple device, although an Android version is in the works. While it might seem strange for the space agency to look underwater, the images they need to process are from fluid-lensing cameras that use techniques originally meant to remove distortion from the atmosphere from pictures of outer space. Turns out they can also unravel distortion caused by the ocean and clearly image coral reefs.
The phone app is in the form of a game and, according to NASA, even a first grader could play it. In the game, you are in command of an ocean research vessel, the Nautilus. You dive to examine coral and identify what you see. The game generates training data for a supercomputer at the Ames Research Center so it can recognize coral types even when taken with more conventional cameras.
Anyone who worked in the tech field and lived through the Y2K bug era will no doubt recall it as a time seasoned with a confusing mix of fear and optimism and tempered with a healthy dose of panic, as companies rushed to validate that systems would pass the rollover of the millennium without crashing, and to remediate systems that would. The era could well have been called “the COBOL programmers full-employment bug,” as the coders who had built these legacy systems were pulled out of retirement to fix them. Twenty years on and a different bug — the one that causes COVID-19 — is having a similarly stimulative effect on the COBOL programmer market. New Jersey is one state seeking COBOL coders, to deal with the crush of unemployment insurance claims, which are killing the 40-year-old mainframe systems the state’s programs run on. Interestingly, Governor Phil Murphy has only put out a call for volunteers, and will apparently not compensate COBOL coders for their time. I mean, I know people are bored at home and all, but good luck with that.
In another throwback to an earlier time, “The Worm” is back. NASA has decided to revive its “worm” logo, the simple block letter logo that replaced the 50s-era “Meatball” logo, the one with the red chevron bracketing a starfield with an orbiting satellite. NASA switched to the worm, named for the sinuous shape of the letters and which honestly looks like a graphic design student’s last-minute homework assignment, in the 1970s, keeping it in service through the early 1990s when the meatball was favored again. Now it looks like both logos will see service as NASA prepares to return Americans to space on their own launch vehicles.
Looking for a little help advancing the state of your pandemic-related project? A lot of manufacturers are trying to help out as best they can, and many are offering freebies to keep you in the game. Aisler, for one, is offering free PCBs and stencils for COVID-19 prototypes. It looks like their rules are pretty liberal; any free and open-source project that can help with the pandemic in any way qualifies. Hats off to Aisler for doing their part.
And finally, history appears to have been made this week in the amateur radio world with the first direct transatlantic contact on the 70-cm band was made. It seems strange to think that it would take 120 years since transatlantic radio became reduced to practice by the likes of Marconi for this accomplishment to occur, but the 70-cm band is usually limited to line of sight, and transatlantic contacts at 430 MHz are usually done using a satellite as a relay. The contact was between stations FG8OJ on Guadaloupe Island in the Caribbean — who was involved in an earlier, similar record on the 2-meter band — and D4VHF on the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and used the digital mode FT8. The 3,867-km contact was likely due to tropospheric ducting, where layers in the atmosphere form a refractive tunnel that can carry VHF and UHF signals much, much further than they usually go. While we’d love to see that record stretched a little more on each end, to make a truly transcontinental contact, it’s still quite an accomplishment, and we congratulate the hams involved.
At this point, most of us are painfully aware of the restrictions that COVID-19 social distancing protocols have put on our daily lives. Anyone who can is working from home, major events are canceled, non-essential businesses are closed, and travel is either strongly discouraged or prohibited outright. In particularly hard hit areas, life and commerce has nearly ground to a halt with no clear end date in sight.
Naturally, there are far reaching consequences for this shutdown beyond what’s happening on the individual level. Large scale projects are also being slowed or halted entirely, as there’s only so much you can do remotely. That’s especially true when the assembly of hardware is concerned, which has put some industries in a particularly tight spot. One sector that’s really feeling the strain is aerospace. Around the world, space agencies are finding that their best laid plans are suddenly falling apart in the face of COVID-19.
In some cases it’s a minor annoyance, requiring nothing more than some tweaks to procedures. But when the movements of the planets are concerned, a delay of weeks or months changes everything. While things are still changing too rapidly to make an exhaustive list, we already know of a few missions that are being impacted in these uncertain times.