LAGEOS, the time capsule

Laser Geodynamics Satellites (LAGEOS) is a couple of (artificial… of course) satellites orbiting around our Earth. Their original aim was to provide an orbiting laser ranging benchmark for Earth geodynamical studies. It was back in the 1976 when LAGEOS-1 was launched by NASA followed in 1992 by LAGEOS-2 (NASA and ASI…). Two launches without too much claim and advertising for one of the most long-lasting missions ever conceived.

Both satellites are actually two balls (looking like golf balls) made of high-density passive laser reflectors. More in detail, they are brass spheres covered with aluminium of 60 cm diameter and 400-410 kg mass. Spread over they surfaces there are 426 reflectors made of glass and germanium. Measurements can be made by transmitting from Earth ground stations pulsed lasers toward the satellites that reflect the pulses and measuring the travel times. In addition the shape, attitude-independent measurements and the orbit allows for using the satellites also for determine the geoid shape, the tectonic plate movements, and the distortion predicted by the general relativity caused by a rotating mass.

In the end the two satellites are completely passive, without any attitude control means and without any electronic on board. In order to provide a stable reference for geodynamical studies (which means an extremely high accuracy in determining the positions of points on the Earth), the golf balls have been placed in very stable medium altitude orbits at about 5900 km altitude.

As a consequence of the orbital altitude, shape and mass of the satellites, LAGEOS-1 (LAGEOS-2 has very similar features…) is doomed to reentry on Earth in … 8.400.000 years! At some point in more than 8 millions years some of our descendant (…or any other species enough intelligent to survive to us) will see a ball coming from the past.

A real time capsule.

This was luckily clear already at the time of launch. LAGEOS-1 indeed carries a plaque, made by C. Sagan (of course…) indicating the future of the humanity expected at the time of satellite launch.


The plaque includes the numbers 1 to 10 in binary. In the upper right is the earth with an arrow pointing to the right, indicating the future. It shows a #1 indicating 1 revolution, equaling 1 year. It then shows 268435456 (in binary; 228) years in the past, indicated by a left arrow and the arrangement of the Earth’s continents at that time. The present is indicated with a 0 and both forward and backward arrows. Then the estimated arrangement of the continents in 8.4 million years with a right facing arrow and 8388608 in binary (223). LAGEOS itself is shown at launch on the 0 year, and falling to the Earth in the 8.4 million year diagram.

I’ll never see the satellites with my own eyes (well… I guess), and I can imagine the astonishment of anyone seeing that plate in millions of years (it si much more than a fossil we can discover nowadays!) .

My hope, as per today, is that the satellites will be still checked (even form time to time) for the millenniums to come, to avoid that far from eyes the satellites will be forget while they can still be considered as alive.


Itsy bitsy spacecraft

Your smartphone is something like one third of what you had only ten years ago (… yes, mobile phones are around for more than a decade now). A laptop nowadays has much more computing power of a computer of some thirty years ago taking up one room.

I’m not the first one (and I’m not a magician) to underline that we live, since years, in the era of miniaturization. Just a few stuffs make exception. The most remarkable ones, belonging to the class “the larger the better”: yachts, optical lens, televisions, forsurealotofotherstuffs, spacecraft.

Well, the last category… maybe and may be not. Of course (Actually, this holds in general), it depends of the mission goal. And mission budget.

In any case an idea like this one seems to me definitely disruptive.

We are not talking about reducing sizes, we are now talking about making an entire spacecraft over a single PCB. Practically no more “mass” and all issues related to it: costs, launch constraints, shock and vibration problems, mechanical structures, interfaces, etc.


Bit-sized spacecraft. Yet working.

Thousand and thousand smaller than any spacecraft known, cubesat including, still maintaining the basic functionalities (of course we are looking at small and functional aspects, not performances…).

A Sprite is only 3.5 centimeters square and weighs four grams, but packs a solar panel, radio, thermometer, magnetometer for compass capabilities and gyroscope for sensing rotation.

And in future the spacecraft will be completed by cameras (…yes, the one of your smartphone might be sufficient) and MEMS sized thrusters.

In principle each Sprite is independent, but for the first demo flight these spacecraft will hitch a ride into a low Earth orbit on Max Valier and Venta-1 satellites (… yes some radio contact with the main probes are undergoing…)

Now we are definitely on the way of sending something to another star, in the STARSHOT fashion.

In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts – miniature space probes attached to lightsails – to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour.

Yes, IMHO, the very only chance that we have to send something really far from us, without thinking of using wormholes or teletransport, is to make is small and small and provide enough energy sufficient to reach some tens percent of the speed light.


PS. A sort of evolution of the past space needles of the West Ford (here).

PPSS. And, in between the “attached chip satellite” version and the interstellar trip, the Sprite satellites are planned to the part of the KickSat project. A NASA project (started with Kick Starter and now part of the ELaNa program) planned to be a technology demonstration mission

It is a 3U CubeSat that will house a 1U avionics bus and a 2U Sprite deployer. KickSat […] will carry over 100 Sprites into an orbit with an altitude between 300 and 350 kilometers where they will be released as free-flying spacecraft.

Propulsion principles

During Eighties the modern aerospace principles were set. Before they were still the same defined by the ancient Chinese, since the black powder discovery. All of these principle rely on a single, consolidated, sacrosanct dynamic law: the reactive force..

Based on these principle we arrived, somehow to atmospheric supersonic propulsion and satellites send here and there in our solar system (and beyond).

Still during Eighties, the Russian engineer Tsiolkowsky (which, by the way was the same to define the propulsion principles actually allowing us to fly still today) defined the 15 steps required for the “cosmonaut development program”:

  • Arranged rocket for flight training on it.
  • Subsequent aircraft wings are reduced, speed increase.
  • Penetrate very close atmosphere.
  • Flights above the atmosphere and low-gravity planning.
  • Create satellites that return to Earth after the flight.
  • Satellites are settled around the Earth, but can come back to Earth.
  • Provide breathing and feeding cosmonauts by plants.
  • Landing modules, satellites for broadcasting and connection.
  • Widely used greenhouses to ensure the independence of man from the Earth.
  • Arranging of extensive settlements around the Earth.
  • Use solar energy, not only for a comfortable life, but also to move through the solar system (Solar sails).
  • Founded the colony in the asteroid belt and other places of the solar system.
  • Develop and expand the number of space colonies.
  • The population of the Solar system is multiplied. Settling around the Milky Way starts.
  • Sun is cooling down. Mankind is removed to other Suns.

As usual below my humble, free and lovely useless comments:

  • Done. The concept of flight training is now a sort of video gaming…
  • Done. Two or more wings planes are not common any more and supersonic planes have relatively reduced wings
  • Done. Almost at any altitude and also with or without planes…
  • Done. Should I mention any manned low Earth orbit mission?
  • Done. Should I mention the space shuttle?
  • Done. Should I mention the MIR, Space Station or the Tiangong?
  • Almost done. We are working on it. Astronauts do not yet eat plants, but they cultivated them in space.
  • Done. Done. Done. Extensively.
  • Not done. Actually from now our achievements did’t reach yet the Tsiolkowsky’s targets. We are still far from reaching any of the following points and even working on them, with our current propulsion principles knowledge, it seems unrealistic to target all of them.

Let’s say that we have rather good chances of setting up space colonies and use solar sails, but I’m rather skeptical that we have any other option (at the moment?) than staying around our Sun. The last two points, in particular, do not seem to me (only?) actually feasible within a human being lifetime (… unless we reach such evolution stages).

I can not avoid, however, to note how accurate the Tsiolkowsky predictions were until today (I’m talking about someone which was able to tell these stuffs in a century when noting man-made wasn’t moving above our heads), thus I should at least assume that he can not be completely wrong regarding what will happen in future.

This is the only reason motivating me to leave a glimmer in believing in propulsion systems other than action-reaction (here I should list a rather long list of potential/Iwanttobelieve/flyingsaucer/bullshit/semi-bullshit ideas and technologies).


Single Stage to Orbit

I definitely like the idea. Actually it doesn’t sound really feasible to me… but for sure because I’m not enough a far-looking man.

Since the begin of the space age, we learnt to go into space by means of rockets. These rockets, depending on the size, payload mass, target orbit and bla bla bla, were (and are) based on some stages. The first stage has the most powerful engine able to fight against Earth gravity, the second completes the ascend phase, a third one helps reaching the target orbit. And everything is often coupled with solid auxiliary solid boosters to give even more thrust.

The technical reasons behind this approach are mainly (but not only two): each engine is optimize to work in a specific range of outside pressure (where the expansion of the jet is maximum) and staging a rocket is a good way to get rid of useless mass (e.g. used stages) to avoid to bring into the target orbit already waste mass (i.e. already spent launch vehicle parts are just useless burden).

Haas 2CA (from the name of the C. Haas, the first one to propose such idea) is this innovative launcher which promises to implement this single stage to orbit approach by replacing the conventional engines with a linear aerospike engine.


What’s that? Well… the implementation of an idea which dates back to the 1960 and “basically works by cutting a rocket engine’s bell in half, then placing the two halves back to back to form a tapering spike“. In short, it is the external air which behaves as the missing half cone adapting itself to the right size to obtain the optimum jet expansion.

This means that as the rocket flies higher, the thinner air holds the gases less tightly and they spread out more as if the rocket bell has gradually grown larger. This allows the aerospike to automatically adjust itself in flight, turning itself from a sea-level engine into a high-altitude one.

Ah, as usual, besides the (fascinating) idea… money moves the right leverage: the system is advertised as disruptive also on the economic side, 1 million dollars per launch; 10 000 dollars per pound.


PS. Just some technical data for completeness: the Haas 2CA will be 16 m, 1.5 m diameter, 550 kg weight and 16290 kg fuelled… not really impressive figures, absolutely in line with the micro-mini sat market the launcher targets.

Planet 9 crowdresearch

We were already raving about the (possibly) new entry in our solar system: ladies and gentleman, here we have… Planet 9!

Yes, yes, it is again the object that might be (or might not) somewhere out there to justify the anomalies of some of the outer planet’s orbits. In the begin of 20th century, actually the astronomer Lowell, already theorised the existence of such a planet and when Pluto was discovered actually the hunt seemed to be over. But Pluto (besides the technical aspect that it is not anymore a planet), is not large enough to justify orbit’s anomalies. After Pluto was Sedna (together with the less suggestive named 2010 GB174 and 2012 VP113) which was the major candidate for the role of Planet 9. But once more these bodies are too small, although with absolutely compatible (and fascinating) orbits to take the role of the mission planet.

Ok, ok, this is some history, but the interesting recent project I bumped into is the Zooninverse (yes, the same project talking about Galaxies, and much more, crowd cataloguing) – Planet 9 project.

Help us search for Planet 9; together we may be able to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the Universe

In short the idea is to ask to the Zooninversers to have a look to a set of images taken from the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey; a fully autonomous Australian-based telescope making a digital map of the southern hemisphere sky. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of images to be processed “by eyes” searching for something moving fast (not stars), but not too fast (not asteroids) which can be a Planet 9 candidate to investigate further. Images like the ones below… can you see something?


Multiple answers for a single image: don’t panic, the final answer will be anyway correct! The new frontier of gaming/research, without the concern of wrong (if not faking) results.

Is it an approach which actually works? Well… 5 million classifications in 3 days. I would say that this works, instead of lonely researcher in their ivory towers.


PS. By the way, Sedna has a period of about 11487 years and it will reach its perihelium in 2075-2076. For the time being it is not planned any mission toward this body in that moment, but if I could make a choice, instead (or together) struggling for finding Planet 9, I would definitely take this opportunity (we are talking about reaching “only” 76 Astronomical Units from the Sun, instead of 900…) to explore such a mysterious word.

Flying ravioli

I have to admit that such a strange shape recalls me some sort of fried egg (and here it seems not just to me…), but when you see it with the deep, black space in background it is worth spending at least a second asking yourself if we are talking about Photoshop.

Well, it seems (I haven’t seen it with my own eyes) that we have new, astonishing close-ups (authored by Cassini, in March 2017, close the end of the mission 😦 ) of Pan. Of course, although it would be nice to image, it is not the god of the wild of Greek mythology, but the bizarre Saturn moon.

Fascinating, absolutely fascinating.

22 x 14 miles wide with a number of small, parallel ridges and groves along the whole frozen surface. Besides these already odd striations also its thin equatorial ridge is so intriguing. It is the second inner moon of the Saturn system, well inside the Encke Gap (the outer A-ring gap). Actually it is right the moon that maintains such a gap which is shared with several diffuse ringlets from which it may still be gathering additional material around its equatorial ridge. It is still unknown if this material (basically ice and debris) is free of moving around the moon surface or it is a compact mass attached to the moon surface.

Moons embedded in the rings, indeed, keep these gaps clear by creating new ringlets and rising a sort of waves of materials out of the ring plane. Once again a weird caused by the most common and mysterious force: the gravity.



Very very very cold

One billionth of degree above the absolute zero. More than 100 000 000 times colder than the depths of space (a place already very cold).

It is like to say that this is the coldest point we might have ever seen. And, since temperature is energy and energy is matter, it is like to explore the deepest structure of energy and matter.

At these extremely low temperature matter behaves like waves more than particle; the state is known as the Bose-Einstein condensate. Ok, this is new, but not brand new.

Here, on the Earth I mean, we already succeeded to create such a state, but the boring gravity affecting everything causes matter to maintain such characteristics only for a fraction of second before to settle atoms towards the ground.

Well, the natural evolution of such experiment is to pack everything and send the equipment to the International Space Station (ISS); at least we know how it can be used besides for taking pictures…

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) experiment is scheduled to be flown on the ISS in August 2017. The box features a powerful laser, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic “knife” to cancel out any gas particles energy. This correspond to having and almost motionless matter in absence of gravity, i.e. a Bose-Einstein condensate lasting for tens/hundreds of seconds!


Of course nothing is done for pure research and the technical repercussion of this experiment are on quantum computers and atomic clocks. The Bose-Einstein condensate state is also a “fluid” with zero viscosity (no viscosity means that there is nothing to slow it down dissipating the kinetic energy) thus also its possible applications on energy transmission can take advantage from this kind of experiments.

All in all, although the space is already very cold, making a tiny box even colder up there helps us here to imagine new concepts and applications. Technology evolving through experiments exploiting what we already have.

Arrangiarsi: taking out the most from everything.


Mars 2117 Project

We live in the epoch of astonishing declarations. The scope of many (and many and many) big players is to create noise, with magnificent declaration, usually with the final aim of moving the people and market. If you say “I’ll make each car an electric car”, for instance, someone (and if you are smart enough yourself) will start producing batteries… In the end, also if you do not make a single electric car, the battery factories have already got their profit. Just to take a purely imaginary example…

Well, coming back to our Mars 2017 project, it seems to me exactly this case. The idea of creating a Mars colony is not new and a lot of investors SAY that this is their final aim … besides being a backup solution for the whole mankind. In any case, the last player in this Mars race are the United Arab Emirates, UAE (I would skip the actual authors of these declarations, to avoid such a long names, but in the end they have very few people deciding everything, so it is not difficult to identify who is talking).


Their declaration is enough easy:

Human ambitions have no limits, and whoever looks into the scientific breakthroughs in the current century believes that human abilities can realize the most important human dream. The new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits, driven by its passion to learn to unveil a new knowledge. The landing of people on other planets has been a longtime dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.

And the country’s vision is enough easy as well: putting 600000 humans on the Red Planet by the next century. Ah, of course this follows the hills of the recent country space success: Nayif-1 is the first UAE nanosatellite, launched on February the 15th. It is like saying that with this blog I have enough experience to win the literature Nobel prize.

But in any case the import aspect is to push people and market in this direction besides the actual realization of the plan. It can not be discussed that UAE is now a big player in the space race, but probably the whole plan is a bit, just a bit, challenging (including the part of the Mars human city built by robots).

The Mars 2117 Project is a long term project, where our first objective is to develop our educational system so our sons will be able to lead scientific research across the various sectors. The UAE became part of a global scientific drive to explore space, and we hope to serve humanity through this project.

Reasonably the first goal of the project is to develop skills and capacities of the country space program (including the draft five-year plan to prepare the next generation of UAE scientists who will then work on the space mission). This sounds much more feasible and reasonable, denoting the willingness of investing and a long term strategic plant wich probably goes beyond the Mars 2117 project.

And now, at least, you know how the oil money will be used; I feel myself one of the contributors of this dream.


Venus Gravity Wave

Do you remember when we were discussing about the difference between gravitational waves and gravity waves? Well, here on Earth, we are quite used to see gravity waves, those ripples on clouds caused by atmosphere temperature differences and Earth mountains.

But what about to observe gravity waves on other planets? Exactly!

Recently a strange formation has been observed on the Venus surface. Among all planets we have up there, Venus in one of the most unexpected places where observe such a phenomenon. Why? Well (besides being a sort of hell), winds flowing at about 100 m/s is enough?


So how is it possible to have an almost stationary structure with those winds? It is very likely a gravity waves, but is is rather strange to see up there. May it be something else? Of course enough mater for writing this research paper (for the moment).

The finding is difficult to reconcile with the planet’s thick upper atmosphere, in which clouds streak by at 100 metres per second – much faster than the slowly rotating planet below, where a Venusian day lasts longer than it takes for the planet to circle the Sun.
Although it is unclear whether gravity waves induced by mountains can readily propagate upwards to the cloud tops of Venus, the observations suggest that the atmospheric dynamics of Venus are more complex at depth than previously appreciated.

The region spans about 10000 kilometres in diameter and hovers over a sharp mountain structure on the planet’s surface.

One of those mystery justifying space missions and motivating to invest further in this direction. Thank Goodness!


PS. It is not the first time Venus shows such a kind of structures: the Y shape structure dates back to 1979 and seems to have been “solved” only in 2015.

Technosphere is evolving

Absolutely fascinating:

The planet’s technosphere now weighs some 30 trillion tons – a mass of more than 50 kilos for every square meter of the Earth’s surface, report investigators. Additionally, the numbers of technofossil ‘species’ now outnumber numbers of biotic species on planet Earth.

Tecnosphere? Of course (at least according to the paper “Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective” University of Leicester geologists).

Technosphere includes physical human-made structures from houses, factories and farms to computer systems, smartphones and CDs, to the waste in landfills and spoil heaps. In short, all structures that humans constructed to keep them alive on this planet compose the technosphere.

Well, it is not surprising that we have so much mankind-produced mass. From a certain point of view we implemented an evolving system and, as any changing system, we left behind us a mass of useless (?) fossils. Well, for the nature, fossils are those stuffs that allowed us to read an history no one else could have told us.

Technosphere approximate mass reaches the enormous estimated value of 30 trillion tons. Of course we didn’t produce this mass out of the blue, but we somehow transformed/reused the mass our planet made us available. In some sense, technosphere measures the extent to which we have reshaped our planet (without asking it any permission).

Humans and human organisations form part of it, too — although we are not always as much in control as we think we are, as the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows — and humans have to help keep it going to survive.

It is intriguing to understand how the potentially largest new phenomenon on this planet is under our eyes, but we never paid enough attention to it (and to its mass). Yes, technosphere is not just mass, it is the system we created that is now somehow evolving without us.