Interstellar Travel

It has been forty years since man has walked on the moon and it is about time we head out into space again. Some say we should go back to the moon, and maybe set up bases. Others believe a trip to Mars is due. But traveling within our solar system is for stay-at-homes and wimps. We need to go to the stars.

Luckily for us DARPA, the same people who gave us the Internet, are already studying the matter. According to this article in Popular Mechanics, they have organized the 100 year Starship symposium to explore ways to reach the stars. This is no easy matter, of course. The 100 years refers to the amount of time they expect it will take to surmount the difficulties.

The problem of building a starship is so difficult that DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office director and manager for the project, David Neyland, figures it will take 100 years just to learn how to pull it off, hence the project’s name. But while traveling to the stars is a far-off goal, Neyland says that just working on the problem will allow the Department of Defense (of which DARPA is a part) to reap very practical benefits now. “We literally send millions—millions—of MREs, little packaged foodstuffs, to our troops in the field overseas. Is there a better way? Well, if you solve the problem for long-duration, long-distance spaceflight for food supplies, what could you do in terms of the Department of Defense for forward-operating locations?” Solving the problem of energy production on a starship that will have to remain powered up for a decades-long journey could similarly produce major benefits for the military.

Here’s a preview of the enormous problems facing the DARPA conference attendees who dream of interstellar travel. We’ll keep you updated on the wild proposals they come up with to overcome these challenges.

To start with, our rocket technology of the present doesn’t even begin to be effective in traveling such great distances.

It starts with propulsion—simply figuring out how to travel interstellar distances. Chemical rockets, the kind that got us to the moon, just won’t get us to the stars. “You need more fuel than exists mass in the known universe,” says physicist Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar. Alternatives such as nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and even antimatter propulsion systems will be on the table here.

 

And of course, there is the difficulty of keeping the crew supplied and motivated for a journey which may take decades or centuries. Any starship we send out will have to be completely self-sufficient. If they break down, no one will be able to rescue them.

I am a little disappointed that star travel is not likely to occur in my lifetime. Perhaps, I should look into cryogenics, have my corpse frozen for later revival.

 

 

 

 

The Mountains of Vesta

Well, just one mountain really, but it’s a big one. Here is something interesting from space.com.

A NASA spacecraft orbiting the asteroid Vesta is revealing new details about the huge space rock’s surface, including a massive mountain that rises taller than Mt. Everest on Earth.

NASA’s Dawn probe has been circling Vesta since mid-July, when it arrived in the asteroid belt that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. So far, Dawn has beamed back surprising views of Vesta that revealed an enormous mountain in the asteroid’s southern hemisphere and show that its crater surface is incredibly diverse place.

“We are learning many amazing things about Vesta, which we call the smallest terrestrial planet,” Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, said in a statement. “Like Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury, Vesta has ancient basaltic lava flows on the surface and a large iron core … The south polar mountain is larger than the big island of Hawaii, the largest mountain on Earth, as measured from the ocean floor. It is almost as high as the highest mountain in the solar system, the shield volcano Olympus Mons on Mars.”

Vesta’s giant southern mountain is nearly as tall as Olympus Mons, the largest mountain (and volcano) in the solar system, which soars about 15 miles (24 kilometers) above the surface. On Earth, the largest terrestrial volcano is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which rises up 6 miles (9 km) high, including the portion of the volcano that extends underwater to the sea floor. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain above sea level on Earth, is a paltry 5.5 miles (8.85 km) tall. [Latest Photos of Asteroid Vesta]

Dawn also revealed that Vesta’s surface appears to be much rougher than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt, which is a vast region full of space rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Additionally, preliminary estimates of crater age dates on Vesta suggest that regions in the southern hemisphere are far younger than in the north — with some areas in the southern hemisphere only about 1 to 2 billion years old.

The findings were presented today at the 2011 European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences Joint Meeting in Nantes, France.

Vesta is actually the second (or maybe third) largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, behind Ceres. Evidently it is large enough for gravity to have compacted it into a sphere but is still a little rough. It has a differentiated interior.

Vesta and some other asteroids

 

They hope to map Vesta and get an idea of the asteroid’s age.

Researchers also said that the difference in the number of craters in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern hemisphere is also striking. The relative ages of the craters and regions can be roughly calculated by counting the number of craters per unit area in the different terrains.

Early estimates show that areas in the south may be much younger than in the north. The oldest ages that have been found in the south so far are younger than 4 billion years old, which was surprising to the researchers since meteorites from Vesta were calculated to be about 4 billion years old.

But, the ages of Vesta’s craters should become more precise as Dawn continues its yearlong mapping mission, the scientists said.

“The variation in Vesta’s brightness as the sun angle changes indicates that the surface of Vesta is very rough, causing light to scatter,” Raymond said in a statement. “This roughness could be at the scales of surface features or at the scale of individual minerals in the rocks, or both. Vesta’s roughness is larger than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt.”

NASA’s Dawn probe has only just begin its mission to map Vesta, and should continue to study the asteroid through mid-2012 before continuing on to its next target: Ceres. Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.

I’m looking forward to some pictures of Ceres close up.

Here is a photo tour of the whole solar system, with lots of good pictures.

If you like that sort of thing than go over to astronomy picture of the day.

Vesta Full-Frame Image
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the giant asteroid Vesta with its framing camera on July 24, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, and will spend a year orbiting the body. After that, the next stop on its itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres.
CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

A NASA spacecraft orbiting the asteroid Vesta is revealing new details about the huge space rock’s surface, including a massive mountain that rises taller than Mt. Everest on Earth.

NASA’s Dawn probe has been circling Vesta since mid-July, when it arrived in the asteroid belt that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. So far, Dawn has beamed back surprising views of Vesta that revealed an enormous mountain in the asteroid’s southern hemisphere and show that its crater surface is incredibly diverse place.

“We are learning many amazing things about Vesta, which we call the smallest terrestrial planet,” Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, said in a statement. “Like Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury, Vesta has ancient basaltic lava flows on the surface and a large iron core … The south polar mountain is larger than the big island of Hawaii, the largest mountain on Earth, as measured from the ocean floor. It is almost as high as the highest mountain in the solar system, the shield volcano Olympus Mons on Mars.”

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Vesta’s giant southern mountain is nearly as tall as Olympus Mons, the largest mountain (and volcano) in the solar system, which soars about 15 miles (24 kilometers) above the surface. On Earth, the largest terrestrial volcano is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which rises up 6 miles (9 km) high, including the portion of the volcano that extends underwater to the sea floor. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain above sea level on Earth, is a paltry 5.5 miles (8.85 km) tall. [Latest Photos of Asteroid Vesta]

Dawn also revealed that Vesta’s surface appears to be much rougher than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt, which is a vast region full of space rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Additionally, preliminary estimates of crater age dates on Vesta suggest that regions in the southern hemisphere are far younger than in the north — with some areas in the southern hemisphere only about 1 to 2 billion years old.

The findings were presented today at the 2011 European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences Joint Meeting in Nantes, France.

Dawn at Vesta

The $466 million Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, beginning a yearlong mission to orbit and study the asteroid. After a year of studying Vesta, the Dawn probe is expected to head off to explore Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system.

Vesta, which measures about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, is the second-largest object in the main asteroid belt and is the brightest asteroid in our solar system.

The surface of Vesta provides scientists with clues into the space rock’s past. Since July, Dawn has been moving steadily closer to Vesta, transitioning into a polar orbit as it scans the asteroid’s surface. In mid-August, the probe mapped the entire sunlit surface of Vesta in visible and infrared wavelengths.

The spacecraft has since moved into a lower orbit and will spend the coming month mapping the asteroid’s sunlit surface at a different resolution, said Carol Raymond, Dawn’s deputy principal investigator.

Scientists are now closely studying Vesta’s craters, ridges and hills, and hope to have the sunlit surface of the asteroid completely mapped by the end of the year, Russell added.

New Photo Reveals Day & Night on Huge Asteroid Vesta
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 18, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 6,500 miles (10,500 kilometers) away from the protoplanet Vesta.
CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn’s framing camera is equipped with seven color filters that collect spectral information that enable scientists to show surface features in false color maps that would not normally be visible to the naked eye. These false colors are ratios of light intensity at different wavelengths, and are indications of different surface materials.

The spacecraft’s observations showed particularly strong differences in surface composition around craters. [Dark Feature Spotted on Asteroid Vesta ]

“Data from different wavelengths can be combined to investigate different types of materials,” said Maria Cristina de Sanctis, of Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics, which manages Dawn’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIR). “The color variations seen by VIR suggest variability in the surface mineralogy.”

Vesta's South Polar Region
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft took this image of the south polar region of Vesta, which has a diameter of 330 miles (530 kilometers). The image was taken on July 9, 2011, and it has a scale of about 2.2 miles (3.5 km) per pixel. To enhance details, the resolution was enlarged to .6 miles (1 km) per pixel. This region is characterized by rough topography, a large mountain, impact craters, grooves and steep scarps.
CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Calculating ages on Vesta

Researchers also said that the difference in the number of craters in the northern hemisphere compared to the southern hemisphere is also striking. The relative ages of the craters and regions can be roughly calculated by counting the number of craters per unit area in the different terrains.

Early estimates show that areas in the south may be much younger than in the north. The oldest ages that have been found in the south so far are younger than 4 billion years old, which was surprising to the researchers since meteorites from Vesta were calculated to be about 4 billion years old.

But, the ages of Vesta’s craters should become more precise as Dawn continues its yearlong mapping mission, the scientists said.

“The variation in Vesta’s brightness as the sun angle changes indicates that the surface of Vesta is very rough, causing light to scatter,” Raymond said in a statement. “This roughness could be at the scales of surface features or at the scale of individual minerals in the rocks, or both. Vesta’s roughness is larger than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt.”

NASA’s Dawn probe has only just begin its mission to map Vesta, and should continue to study the asteroid through mid-2012 before continuing on to its next target: Ceres. Dawn is expected to arrive at Ceres in February 2015.