Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Thinking Outside The "Bubble"

Future spacecraft will soon be powered by new advanced engines that use plasma as a propellant that also wraps around the outside of a ship. THE OUTSIDE. The details still need to be worked out, but the basic idea is an external fusion powered engine.

Space agencies along with universities on both sides of the pond have been working on a system where power would be channeled through a superconducting web arranged around the surface of a spacecraft. Once a field is established using this web plasma would be introduced into it creating an artificial magnetosphere.

The ingenious notion to use miniature magnetospheres as a form of advanced propulsion was first suggested in 2001 by a scientist named Robert Winglee at the University of Washington.  What might happen, he asked, if we created a magnetic bubble around something much smaller than the Earth -- like a spacecraft? Could it ride the solar wind from planet to planet? 

Injecting ionized gases (called plasma) to create a magnetic bubble is what gave his project the name: Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion or M2P2 for short. The system would use a plasma chamber, about the size of a large pickle jar, attached to a spacecraft. Solar cells and solenoid coils would power the creation of a dense magnetized plasma, or ionized gas, that would inflate an electromagnetic field 10 to 12 miles in radius around the spacecraft. The field will interact with and be dragged by the solar wind. Creating the field would be akin to raising a giant sail and harnessing the solar wind, which moves at 780,000 to 1.8 million miles an hour--or "here to Washington, D.C., in 10 seconds," says Winglee. 

There is enough power in the solar wind to move a 300-pound spacecraft at speeds of up to 4.3 million miles a day. At such speeds, an M2P2-equipped spacecraft launched today could overtake Voyager I within eight years, despite Voyager's 22-year headstart. A 15 km-wide miniature magnetosphere one astronomical unit from the Sun would feel 1 to 3 Newtons of force from the solar wind," says Gallagher one Winglee's associates, "That's enough to accelerate a 200 kg spacecraft from a dead stop to 80 km/s (180,000 mph) in only 3 months. 

For human travelers the greatest advantage of M2P2 might not be steady acceleration or fuel efficiency, but rather its impressive safety features. Just as the Earth's magnetosphere protects us from solar radiation, an M2P2 bubble could shield spacefarers from cosmic rays and solar flares – the Achilles heel of manned space travel. 

Later an offshoot of the M2P2 engine called The VASIMR, was created and successfully tested in 2009 on the ISS. VASIMR's inventor is former long-time NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz president and CEO of The Ad Astra Rocket Company in Texas. Although the two ideas are not identical they both use a plasma propulsion approach.

Dr. Chang Diaz has been actively propagandizing an argument combining three claims. First, that cosmic radiation hazards dictate that current day propulsion, which enables six month transits from Earth to Mars, is too slow to enablehuman mission to Mars. Second, that therefore much faster forms of interplanetary propulsion are necessary before we dare undertake human Mars exploration missions. Third, that his VASIMR propulsion system would uniquely enable such quick trips.

Mars here we come. 

Monday, December 8, 2014


A few years ago when we all got chips and pickles on the side for free, and we were only charged for outgoing calls we also got to bring free luggage for flights but it looks like the good old days are over. On a positive note we do still have free refills on drinks in certain restaurants and if you’re short of sweeteners or napkins you are free to take as many of those as you want. No one seems to mind. I suppose you could also collect ketchup and mustard packets and a few extra salt and peppers as the airline attendant rolls by your seat.
From 2007 to 2010, baggage fees grew at a compounding rate of 94.11 percent each year. Although its more on us now, ancillary fees, such as baggage fees, have represented a golden turnaround opportunity for airlines plagued by heavy losses. In any case, airline fees are here to stay which calls for action and a few people have tried. How can we forget when in 2012 a passenger heading to Kenya tried to save a few yuan by making his way through security at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport while wearing every article of clothing he brought along for the trip. All told, security agents counted some 70 pieces of clothing, which included as many as 60 shirts and nine pairs of jeans. Though the unidentified man aroused suspicion before entering the checkpoint due to his "sumo wrestler"-like appearance, what ultimately foiled his foolproof scheme were the batteries, flash drives, and miscellaneous toys in his pockets that triggered the metal detector and prompted a full-body search. Asked why he didn't just put all his clothes in a suitcase, the man reportedly said he was hoping to avoid paying the extra fee for checked baggage.
It actually wasn't a bad idea except he had too much to wear. And speaking of fees, if you want to save money don’t fly Spirit Airlines or Allegiant Air. Allegiant charges $35 per bag and Spirit is worse at $50 per bag. It’s important to remember they don’t charge for a personal bag though. A personal bag is still free. It’s no wonder all men haven’t started using man purses or backpacks to save on these baggage fees. Why not? Just stuff a weekends worth of clothing in there and jump on the plane to save the fees. Either that or go shopping once you get there. Before you leave just put in your new man bag.
I don't mean to "carry-on" but the reality is every time I’ve flown in the last couple years the number of carry-ons just doesn’t seem to change and I watch with increasing impatience as the airline attendants struggle to shove them all in the overhead compartments. I have to ask myself why so much extra packing is still going on? If I had an airline I would forbid the carry-ons. Before you entered the plane in big red letters a sign would say. WARNING. ONE PERSONAL BAG ONLY. NO OVERHEAD COMPARTMENTS. WE SAVED YOU THE FEES AND EXPANDED THE SEAT SIZES. REST ASSURED IF THE PLANE GOES DOWN YOU WON'T GET HIT BY FLYING CARRY-ONS. Have a nice day.
I guess it all depends on who you are but as for me, I bring a small back pack and check the rest in. If not for fees just speed and convenience. I still have the impulse to scream while thinking about it all, especially when take offs are clearly delayed for all the carry-ons still being shoved in the overheads. And don’t forget all those bags falling on top of your head as people grab them out to leave once you arrive. Half the time all those passengers who overpacked, caused delays, and paid all those fees, can’t even pull them down safely so your husband is doing it for them or you are. Maybe I can charge my own fee for that. Sigh. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Transportation Is Not Included

If the costs of getting to space lessen making it possible to get into space and colonize other planets, could it be such a bad thing? And who’s going to regulate that? It’s a long way from home and lets not forget history when England tried to control 13 little American colonies just a few thousand miles away, much less a few million. The Outer Space Treaty from 1967 that was signed by 100 countries that bars anyone from laying claim to the moon and other planets has no mention of personal ownership. This is only a loophole that might as well be a black hole.            
            Space X and other commercial space flight companies like Virgin Galactic are already challenging the idea that only governments will be solely responsible for outer space settlements. According to Elon Musk of Space X it’s only the matter of when not who before government and private enterprise join forces to get a space colony started. Although the cost would be high in the beginning he says if private companies have the freedom to participate it would drive prices down and start regular flights to Mars. Space X has already contracted with the government to supply the cargo to and from the International Space Station and it’s not long before private companies like his will handle the cargo portion of the job and will someday carry the astronauts too. If we took this one step further, where individual and private companies owned property on other planets like Mars what would happen? According to the experts like Elon Musk, the money and the technology would still come from private individuals or companies like Space X.
            In 2012 a journalist named Teresa Anjou wrote an article for the Miami Herald called, “Can You Own Land in Outer Space?” Her conclusion thoroughly supports Elon Musk’s idea that if private companies financed permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars it would drive down the cost of space flight and space tourism could grow into a money making venture. For instance, there is a blog by Red Planet reality claiming they can sell you a one square mile parcel of land on Mars for $29.99 but the transportation is not included. This is obviously just a scam but it does present a real possibility. Take for instance an advertisement called “Everybody’s Going To Be A Space Pioneer.” In the ad, we see an astronaut floating in space and it asks for five easy payments of $99,999.99 to get to a pioneer city on Mars, which is the sum Elon Musk is already seriously talking about charging someday.
            Seems as if everything is pointing to individual resources and risk taking entrepreneurs, and the opposing claim that only nations can control, buy or participate for outer planets or other heavenly bodies is already lost in Moon dust. Commercial companies are paving our way to the planets, not owned by governments. Even Nasa considers itself a commercial entity now. Since 2011 when the space shuttle fleet was retired, NASA had to rely on other countries namely Russia to send cargo and astronauts to the space station and back.
            A long as there’s people who are willing to pay, and people like Elon Musk waiting to sell, it seems there is no other answer than individual involvement along with government that fits into space from now on, but fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a rough ride.