Tag: spacecraft

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).


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.


Juno: valvole ed orbite

Nel Luglio dello scorso anno (2016) è stato annunciato in pompa magna l’arrivo di Juno (la missione, non il film) in orbita attorno a Giove. Ed effettivamente era un momento storico per la missione (si, si, anche per la razza umana…).

Il passo successivo doveva essere quello di avvicinarsi al pianeta per fare foto che più belle non si può (ci fate il poster o le usate per fare studi scientifici a seconda della vostra inclinazione personale).

Ovvero si trattava di spostarsi dall’orbita di arrivo (che compie un giro attorno al pianeta in circa due mesi) su un’orbita di lavoro (che compie un giro in due settimane). Su tale orbita la missione avrebbe dovuto osservare Giove per circa 20 mesi fino al Febbraio 2018 per poi bruciarsi nell’atmosfera del pianeta.


In realtà è stato diagnosticato (cosa già di per sé un po’ più complessa dello scoprire che i topi vi hanno rosicchiato il cavo dell’antenna) un malfunzionamento di un paio di valvole di elio che servono durante lo sparo dei motori principali della sonda. Malfunzionamento, non rottura.

Infatti per molti mesi il dubbio è stato: rischiare di accendere i motori per portarci sull’orbita obiettivo oppure accontentarsi di un periodo di circa 53 giorni invece che 14? Beh, se avesse fatto anche voi un viaggio di 5 anni per arrivare VICINO alla vostra destinazione ci pensereste bene prima di rischiare di mandare tutto all’aria, spostandovi, magari, su un’orbita ancora peggiore.

Diciamo che è un po’ una scelta di vita, ma io avrei fatto lo stesso.


Qualche giorno fa, infatti, la NASA ha annunciato che Juno rimarrà semplicemente nella sua attuale orbita. Ad ogni modo, la missione promette bene. Già le prime foto, scattate 8 volte più vicino alla superficie del pianeta rispetto alle precedenti missioni, hanno fatto il giro del mondo ed in più con un “reindirizzamento scientifico della missione” è possibile anche trarre qualche beneficio da questa situazione. La nuova orbita offre (anche se non si può dire che sia stata una cosa cercata…) condizioni migliori per lo studio della magnetosfera del pianeta ed inoltre essendo ad una quota maggiore riceve anche minori radiazioni il che può (se tutto va bene 😀 ) anche consentire un’estensione della missione oltre i 20 mesi previsti.

Non tutto è perduto. Anzi…


PS. Mi affascina particolarmente pensare a come una missione come questa (non proprio una cosa amatoriale per intenderci) sia sostanzialmente legata a due valvoline di pochi cm che non ci incastrano nulla con la meccanica orbitale. E come milioni e milioni di dollaroni siano CIRCA dove avremmo voluto e noi da qui non possiamo fare assolutamente nulla per far fare alla sonda gli ultimi km del suo viaggio.

Accontentiamoci di guardare ed accettiamo il risultato raggiunto.

Verso Psiche ed oltre

17 Marzo 1852. Annibale de Gasparis guardava il cielo, naso all’insù dall’Osservatorio di Capodimonte. Un puntino si muoveva. Un puntino finora non giustificabile. Un nuovo asteroide. Annibale non ne conosceva ancora il “mistero”…

16 Psiche è uno dei boss della fascia principale degli asteroidi. 250 km di diametro per un sasso spaziale di circa 1.7e19 kg, mica poco…


Ma il mistero (… parola magica cattura-attenzione) che avvolge Psiche deriva dalla analisi del suo spettro elettromagnetico: praticamente ferro e nichel allo stato puro (M type asteorid, in gergo)! Una specie di miniera a cielo aperto (e qui posso capire perfettamente quando si parla di asteroid mining…).

Tuttavia ora le domande (… e già la magia del mistero si affievolisce) sono due: come si è formata una palla di ferro? Quanto è denso un asteroide fatto di ferro-nichel?

Per quanto riguarda la prima, l’ipotesi più accreditata è che l’asteroide che vediamo oggi sia ciò che resta del nucleo di un pianetino che, bersagliato da molteplici impatti, è stato privato di tutta la sua parte rocciosa mettendo a nudo il suo nucleo “inscalfibile”.

Per la seconda, invece, abbiamo la fortuna che Psiche, essendo abbastanza grande, esercita un’influsso gravitazionale sugli altri oggetti della fascia principale misurabile e quindi da ciò è possibile determinare abbastanza accuratamente la sua densità che è… bassissima!
20000 kg/m3, ovvero il doppio dell’acqua! Ma non stavamo parlando di ferro-nichel? Beh, l’unica spiegazione ragionevole sembra essere che il masso non è una roba solida, ma piuttosto un aggregato di polveri e particolati molto poroso.

Aggiungiamo (… e qui arriva a leggere solo chi non ha di meglio da fare) che: un masso di ferro-nichel dovrebbe eavere un campo magnetico fortissimo e che “the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System”. Ma tutte/molte delle meteoriti metalliche che ci sfiorano provengono da impatti con Psiche? Ma Psiche è il risultato di una fusione di materiale o un aggregamento di polveri?

Ovviamente il masso ci guarda e tace e noi abbiamo ancora l’ambizione di voler confermare le nostre speculazioni per cui gli estremi per una asteroid mission ci sono tutti.

This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way. […] For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low-cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.

Per il momento la missione proposta (Psyche senza troppa fantasia) ha passato la prima selezione (2015, assieme alla missione Lucy per l’esplorazione dei Trojani) ed ha ricevuto un finanziamento di 3M$ per un ulteriore anno di studio (principalmente volto a dettagliare il piano di missione e mitigare i rischi) e, se dovesse passare fra i finalisti del programma Discovery riceverebbe 450 M$ (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) per portare avanti il programma.

Lancio previsto 2020, continuiamo a speculare che c’è tempo, e mistero.