The only way to travel? #SpaceTravel #SolarSails

With all the recent press about the 4 billion mile, 10 year trip to a comet in the asteroid belt, and the release of Interstellar in the movie theatres, it seems appropriate to look at the way we do travel in space. Despite 50 years of invention, we appear to be pretty much stuck with rockets and flybys. However as detailed in this nice Gizmodo article, there are other options for traveling thru space. The article goes into some detail about three options that seem like science fiction, but that we’re currently working on.

The first option is thermonuclear fusion. At least we know it works – it powers the Sun after all. However, we’ve never been able to set up a successful fusion experiment. The problem has always been controlling the plasma in a usable fashion and keeping the fusion process alive. It could another 30 years before we reach the stage where this lets us travel cheaply through the solar system, but it could let us approach maybe one tenth the speed of light, where we could reach the nearest stars in 40 years or so.

The second option is a solar sail. We’ve actually launched one of these, although the rocket blew up and so it never got a chance to be deployed. The idea here is a large unfolded sail that could either harness the power of the (free) solar pressure or (more expensive) lasers directed into space. Although such a space-craft system would start off slow it could quickly get up to about 1/5 the speed of light. The technology exists for this one, we just need to get it launched.

The third option is the most exotic. You could, theoretically traverse the entire universe inside a few years of your own life by using a pair of black holes. In essence you go into a sling shot between the black holes and then fly off into space. As you get really close to the speed of light, your time slows down so you could get anywhere and back in a few years. Unfortunately a few billion years may have passed on Earth while you are gone. This one remains in the realms of science fiction, for now.


Rubber does bounce. #67/p #philae #rosetta

When the Europe Space Agency saw the comet in detail a few weeks ago, it was a little upsetting. Rather than the usual ’roundish’ shape, this comet was very clearly shaped like a rubber duck. This was going to make the landing difficult. But today they soft-landed their Philae probe onto the comet. Undoubtedly this image will be one of the most memorable of this campaign as the washing-machine sized probe started it journey onto the surface, capping a ten-year, four-billion-mile journey.

However there was one glitch. As comets are not really ‘solid’ they have a unusual and somewhat unpredictable gravity. The plan was to fire grappling hooks and grab onto the comet upon landing. However, the harpoons failed to fire and so the probe bounced. At least once. Maybe more. It did send a signal so it looks alive. And it has missed the boulders, cliffs and gas-venting cracks in the vicinity. We’ll know more over the next few days as we communicate with the Rosetta mothership, still in orbit around the comet.

Then, onto drilling and the search for water.

Caught in the act – forming planets, #HLTau, #PlanetForming #ALMA

This image looks so bright, so clear, and so pretty that you would be forgiven for assuming that is a computer-generated model. But this is actual real data taken by an array of radio telescopes, called ALMA, in Chile. In this image, we’ve captured planetary formation in action. In the center is the star HL Tau – less than a million years old but in many ways just like our Sun – surrounded by concentric circles of dust and gas. The clear gaps in this glowing disk are where planets are forming. As the planet forms it collects up all the material in it orbits and hence clears away the debris.

As discussed on the National Geographic article –

”  “When we first saw this image we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail,” said ALMA deputy program scientist Catherine Vlahakis. “HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disc appears to be full of forming planets.”

Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) added that such a high resolution image would help us understand also the formation of Earth more than four billion years ago.

“Most of what we know about planet formation today is based on theory,” said de Zeeuw in a press release. “Images with this level of detail have up to now been relegated to computer simulations or artist’s impressions.”

Fantastic new light shed onto an old subject.