Laser Propulsion Could Satisfy Our Spacecraft’s Need For Speed

There are many wonderful places we’d like to visit in the universe, and probably untold numbers more that we haven’t even seen or heard of yet. Unfortunately…they’re all so darn far away. A best-case-scenario trip to Mars takes around six months with present technology, meanwhile, if you want to visit Alpha Centauri it’s a whole four lightyears away!

When it comes to crossing these great distances, conventional chemical rocket technology simply doesn’t cut the mustard. As it turns out though, lasers could hold the key to cutting down travel times in space!

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Mercury Thrusters: A Worldwide Disaster Averted Just In Time

The field of space vehicle design is obsessed with efficiency by necessity. The cost to do anything in space is astronomical, and also heavily tied to launch weight. Thus, any technology or technique that can bring those figures down is prime for exploitation.

In recent years, mercury thrusters promised to be one such technology. The only catch was the potentially-ruinous environmental cost. Today, we’ll look at the benefits of mercury thrusters, and how they came to be outlawed in short order.

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Apollo Comms Flight Hardware Deep Dive

You no doubt recall the incredible Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) reverse engineering and restoration project featured on the CuriousMarc YouTube channel a few years ago. Well, [Marc] and the team are at it again, this time restoring the Apollo Unified S-Band tracking and communication system flight hardware. As always, the project is well documented, carefully explained, full of problems, and is proceeding slowly despite the lack of documentation.

Like the guidance computer, the Unified S-Band system was pretty innovative for its day — able to track, provide voice communications, receive television signals, and send commands to and monitor the health of the spacecraft via telemetry. The system operates on three frequencies, an uplink containing ranging code, voice and data. There are two downlinks, one providing ranging, voice, and telemetry, the other used for television and the playback of recorded data. All crammed into two hefty boxes totaling 29 kg.

So far, [Marc] has released part 9 of the series (for reference, the Apollo Guidance Computer took 27 parts plus 8 auxiliary videos). There seems to be even less documentation for this equipment than the AGC, although miraculously the guys keep uncovering more and more as things progress. Also random pieces of essential ground test hardware keep coming out of the woodwork. It’s a fascinating dive into not only the system itself, but the design and construction techniques of the era. Be sure to check out the series (part 1 is below the break) and follow along as they bring this system back to life. [Marc] is posting various documents related to the project on his website. And if you missed the AGC project, here’s the playlist of videos, and the team joined us for a Hackaday Chat back in 2020.

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Spacing Out: Telescopes, Politics, And Spacecraft Design

Let’s launch into a round-up of stories that are out of this world, as we take a look at what’s happening in the realm of space exploration.

Ten Billion Dollars For A Telescope? Don’t Drop It!

Perhaps the most highly anticipated space mission of the moment is the James Webb Space Telescope, an infra-red telescope that will be placed in an orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point from which it will serve as the successor to the now long-in-the-tooth Hubble telescope. After many years of development the craft has been assembled and shipped to French Guiana for a scheduled Ariane 5 launch on the 22nd of December. We can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the engineers and technicians working on the telescope when an unplanned release of a clamp band securing it to the launch vehicle adapter sent a vibration throughout the craft. Given the fragility of some of its components this could have jeopardised the mission, however after inspection it was found that no damage had occurred and that space-watchers and astronomers alike can breathe easy.

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NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek

The good news about using solar power to explore space is there are no clouds to block your sunlight. Some dust and debris, yes, but nowhere near what we have to deal with on planets. The bad news is, as you wander further and further out in the solar system, your panels capture less and less of the sunlight you need for power. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be dependent on every square inch, so we’re happy to hear technicians have successfully tested its solar panel deployment in preparation for an October 2021 launch.

An animation of Trojan asteroids and inner planets in orbit around the Sun.
Trojan asteroids (in green) orbit the Sun ahead of and behind Jupiter.

Lucy’s 12-year mission is to examine one Main Belt asteroid and seven so-called Trojans, which are asteroids shepherded around the Sun in two clusters at Lagrange points just ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit. The convoluted orbital path required for all those visits will sling the spacecraft farther from the sun than any solar-powered space mission has gone before. To make up for the subsequent loss of watts per area, the designers have done their best to maximize the area. Though the panels fold up to a package only 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick, they open up to an enormous diameter of almost 24 feet (7.3 meters); which is enough to provide the roughly 500 watts required at literally astronomical distances from their power source.

Near-Earth asteroids are exciting targets for exploration partly because of the hazards they pose to our planet. Trojan asteroids, thought to be primordial remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets, pose no such danger to us but may hold insights about the early formation of our solar system. We’re already eagerly anticipating the return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample, and Hayabusa2 continues its mission after so many firsts. An extended tour of these farther-off objects will keep us watching for years to come. Check out the video embedded below for Lucy’s mission overview.

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X-Rays Are The Next Frontier In Space Communications

Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.

While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.

We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.

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Engineering For The Long Haul, The NASA Way

The popular press was recently abuzz with sad news from the planet Mars: Opportunity, the little rover that could, could do no more. It took an astonishing 15 years for it to give up the ghost, and it took a planet-wide dust storm that blotted out the sun and plunged the rover into apocalyptically dark and cold conditions to finally kill the machine. It lived 37 times longer than its 90-sol design life, producing mountains of data that will take another 15 years or more to fully digest.

Entire careers were unexpectedly built around Opportunity – officially but bloodlessly dubbed “Mars Exploration Rover-B”, or MER-B – as it stubbornly extended its mission and overcame obstacles both figurative and literal. But “Oppy” is far from the only long-duration success that NASA can boast about. Now that Opportunity has sent its last data, it seems only fitting to celebrate the achievement with a look at exactly how machines and missions can survive and thrive so long in the harshest possible conditions.

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