Friday, 14 November 2014

Martian Salad Bar

As befits a cafe on Mars, here's a post about food.

Astronauts and Marstronauts who are away from sources of Earth-grown food may subsist on dehydrated food, packaged meals and so on, but as the engineer involved in the following video (see link below) points out, the sensory experience of eating real food adds a huge amount to our lives. We take it for granted, but travellers to Mars will probably start longing for something fresh after a few weeks or months. A graduate team at the University of Colorado have been developing a kind of automated plant grower and a robot plant-tender. Don't view this unless you like interesting things.

Meet the Gardening Robot

If such devices are to be used on Mars, in the initial stages of a colony, I would want to ask:

- Does the complexity of the electronics and mechanics in SPOT and ROGR justify the potential gain to the colony? The more complex things are, the harder they are to fix. Many spare parts would be required. Couldn't the colonists simply aim to bring or make their own soil, use some basic temperature & humidity data loggers, and hand-tend their gardens?

Beyond that, agriculture is not my speciality, but I'm sure that researchers such as those in the excellent video have been thinking through the details.

But as soon as they've worked out the details and are harvesting their first crop of Martian chili peppers, I'd like to reserve one kilo for use at the Red Planet Cafe.

Both images extracted from Motherboard video presentation.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Travelling to orbit by BALLOON?

When you first hear this one, you may be excused for thinking, 'No way! This is a hoax!'

But it's based solidly on real physics, and has absorbed the combined efforts of some serious engineers with degrees and all that.

It's called: Airship-To-Orbit.

Yes indeed. There is a real R&D company called JP Aerospace, founded by John Marchel Powell, that's totally committed to developing a non-rigid, lighter-than-air method of reaching low Earth orbit. And the crazy thing is that it makes perfect sense. Not only that, but it leaves me wondering why people like NASA or ESA haven't pumped a ton of money into it and made it work a whole lot quicker.

They may have their reasons. Read on.

JPA's plan is a three-stage process. First, a U-shaped high-altitude airship carries a crew of 3 up to 140,000 feet (that's well over 40km) where it docks with a 'Dark Sky Station'. It has this misleadingly sinister name because, well, the sky's dark up there. You're almost in space. Then from the Sky Station, an Ascender vehicle slowly powers up into orbit using a hybrid propulsion system which they're still developing. This Ascender vehicle is part-airship, and will measure maybe 6,000 feet (1800m) in length. That's over a mile! But it should be feasible, since this craft never touches the ground and operates well above the most turbulent layers of the atmosphere.

The problems? Well, how ever you get up out of the atmosphere, in order to achieve orbital velocity your vehicle must accelerate. This means energy must be expended, so you need fuel and an efficient propulsion system. How much energy is being saved by the use of airships? How much cheaper will the whole system prove to be?

One thing is undeniable, I think: ATO does look to be the safest way to reach space that's yet been proposed. Airships comprise a large number of gas cells. If a few are punctured, well, that's unfortunate, but it's not a disaster. The worst that will happen is that the airship simply has to float back down to Earth sooner than expected. No explosions, no sudden death.

I have a sinking feeling, though, that the main reason this approach hasn't received a huge swell of investment from aerospace companies is that it could prove to be too cheap! All those lucrative contracts for building big rockets... think about it.