In northern Arizona, NASA just kicked off the 2011 Desert RATS test mission, which is testing vehicle technologies for off-Earth exploration. Desert RATS is the nickname for NASA’s program officially called “Desert Research and Technology Studies”. For over ten years, NASA has assembled a wealth of information on vehicle technology, living space technologies and human studies.
A key component, the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) uses lessons learned from the Apollo-era “moon buggies”, yet takes advantage of new materials and technologies.
NASA’s goal for the SEV is to have a vehicle that can meet the needs of any destination. With features such as a pressurized cabin suitable for surface exploration or in-space missions, the SEV concept should prove instrumental in future manned exploration missions.
The test vehicle for surface exploration places the pressurized cabin on a motorized chassis, featuring wheels that can pivot 360 degrees and a top speed of about 10 kilometers an hour. Roughly the size of an SUV, the vehicle allows two astronauts to explore an area for up to 14 days.
Developed to survive harsh conditions and rough terrain, NASA’s engineers set lofty goals for the SEV : travel thousands of kilometers of rocky terrain, up 40 degree slopes, and little-to-no maintenance required.
One other goal NASA set for the SEV was to provide a shirtsleeve environment for astronauts. Both the surface and space versions feature suitports, which allow the astronauts to quickly enter and exit the vehicle. The suitports allow the spacesuits to remain outside the vehicle, preventing dust or other contaminants from entering the SEV.
According to NASA, new testing during the 2011 Desert RATS mission campaign is set to be the most extensive D-RATS testing to date. Testing more systems than in previous years, including more Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU) systems. The HDU’s core module includes improvements to the 2010 configuration including laboratory equipment, work stations and a new sanitation module.
The 2011 version of the Habitat Demonstration Unit has an new, innovative, system to test: The X-Hab, which is an inflatable second story loft style addition to the HDU. The X-Hab was developed in conjunction with the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. Together with the X-Hab, the HDU module provides astronauts with a means of habitation during the D-RATS test mission.
As mentioned above, during the 2011 Desert RATS field test the X-Hab loft is configured as the second story of the HDU. The HDU loft contains habitat facilities for crew personnel. The 2011 field test configuration also includes a new Hygiene Module and the Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) Work Porch. The resulting configuration with the HDU, X-Hab, Work Porch and other new elements result is the HDU Deep Space Habitat configuration.
What other technologies are being tested by NASA to assist with future manned exploration missions?
Fraser Cain at Universe Today writes:
Pluto isn’t a planet any more, but it’s still a very interesting dwarf planet in the Solar System, worthy of our fascination and interest. Here are 10 facts about Pluto. Some you might already know, and others will be completely new.
1. Pluto has an atmosphere
Even though Pluto’s average temperature averages a mere 44 degrees above absolute zero, the dwarf planet has an atmosphere. Not an atmosphere as we know it, but an atmosphere, none the less.
It was first discovered back in 1985, when astronomers watched as Pluto passed in front of a star. They were able to calculate a slight dimming as its atmosphere passed in front of the star, before Pluto itself blocked the star entirely. From those observations, they were able to calculate that it has a thin envelope of nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.
As Pluto moves away from the Sun, this atmosphere gets so cold that it freezes onto the surface. And then as the dwarf planet warms again, the atmosphere evaporates again, forming a gas around it.
2. Pluto has
3 4 moons
You might have heard that Pluto has a large moon called Charon (more on that later), but did you know that it actually has 3 moons in total. Charon is the large one, with a mass of roughly half that of Pluto’s.
Two additional moons, Nix and Hydra, were discovered by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope on May 15, 2005. They were originally called S/2005 P1 and S/2005 P2, and then given their final names on June 21, 2006.
They took a long time to discover because they’re so tiny. Nix is only 46 km across, while Hydra is 61 km across.
Update:A fourth moon, dubbed “P4″ was recently detected by the Hubble Space Telescope.
3. Pluto hasn’t cleared out its orbit
Although Pluto orbits the Sun and it’s round, it’s not a planet. And that’s because Pluto hasn’t cleared out its orbit of material. This was the reason that the International Astronomical Union chose to demote it from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.
Just to give you an idea, if you added up the mass of all the other objects in Pluto’s orbit, Pluto’s mass would only be a tiny fraction of that total. In fact, it would only be 0.07 times as massive as everything else. For comparison, if you did the same thing with all the other material in the Earth’s orbit, our planet would be 1.5 million times as massive.
And that’s why Pluto’s not a planet.
Busy week here, but I wanted to get this image up for everyone to see.
The above image depicts a crescent Earth and Moon. According to NASA, this was the first image of its kind taken by a remote spacecraft. The image was taken on September 18th, 1977 by Voyager 2.
Launched in August of 1977, the craft was nearly twelve million kilometers from Earth when the image was taken.
Currently, Voyager 2 is just under 100 A.U from Earth ( 1 A.U is the distance from our Sun to Earth – roughly 150,000,000 km. )
What are the Voyager probes doing at this moment?
It’s time for another featured question! This week’s featured question is from Gianmario in Finland. If you have a question about Astronomy, feel free to send it in via the contact form , my Google+ page, or even the “Dear Astronomer” Facebook page.
I know that space is expanding at a rate of 2.3*10^-18 cm/s/cm. I figured that means the milky way’s diameter increases by about 2.3 km/s. Fine. Does this also mean that also inter-atomic distances increase, albeit by zepto-meters per second?
Great question Gianmario!
Essentially the forces behind cosmic expansion manifest themselves over large distances. Secondly, the forces that govern intermolecular and submolecular bonds are much, stronger than the forces responsible for said expansion, so no… inter-atomic distances won’t increase, just the distances between large groups of molecules. e.g the distances between galaxies will increase, but individual masses won’t lose density (same mass, larger volume).
If you haven’t already heard, Google is getting into the social media game with Google+. There’s many things Google is doing differently than MySpace, Twitter and Facebook which are quite refreshing. Google+ is getting close to 30 million members while still in an “invite-only” beta test.
One concept that I’ve enjoyed is Google’s method of organizing friends. Google+ uses the concept of “circles”, so you can make content available to any or all circles.
You can even “nest” circles for even more convenience. Another interesting feature is that there’s no direct mail system like Facebook/MySpace. If you want to drop a note to someone, you’d simply create a post, but only share it with that friend. This concept is like posting on a friend’s wall on Facebook, except that only you and your friend would see the post ( and subsequent replies )
I will say, there’s still a few glitches for Google to sort out, and plenty of room for improvement. Google has taken user feedback during the beta test seriously and are continually making improvements.
If you’d like to join google plus, I have
150 140 invites available now. You’ll need to have a Google account (Gmail, etc.) to sign up. Currently there’s no way for google apps (Gmail for companies) users to join Google+, but Google is working on the issue. Follow this link to sign up:
If you are already on Google+, feel free to add me to your circles. Here’s my profile link:
Adding me to your circles will qualify you for the Google+ Galileoscope Giveaway!