The Final Frontier

Published Date
01 - Oct - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Oct - 2005
 
The Final Frontier
But all that's about to change… Let's take a look at how research in this field not only helps us travel to distant planets, but also improves things right here on Earth

Humans are, by nature, inquisitive. We want to learn, we want to invent, and most of all, we want to explore all possibilities. It's this very quality of homo sapiens that has made us evolve from little tribes living on the banks of rivers-wielding sticks, worshipping fire and battling the elements-to a six billion-strong society with the monstrous concrete jungles we call home, and the ability to fly off this planet! But why should we ever leave Earth?

Problems
We have explored the majority of our planet, and exploited it in every way. What happens when we run out? Of fuel to burn, or real estate to live in? We can't manufacture oil; we haven't found a replacement for it; we can't, or won't, even build cities underground, or underwater. We can't halt the population explosion either. If only there were another Earth!

Solutions
Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of suns, billions of planets, and a myriad of moons out there in space. There is life out there, and perhaps even intelligent life. We're fascinated by the idea of visiting other planets, and would love to meet an alien being-of the E.T. type, not the Independence Day or War Of The Worlds type!

One popular science-fiction (sci-fi) solution for the fuel problem is to set up mining colonies on other planets, even on the uninhabitable ones, to bring back minerals and fuels to Earth. And we don't mean from galaxies far, far away. We are looking at our neighbour Mars. But we actually know nothing about it. Sure, NASA has sent probes and Mars Rovers over there, but even then, we're just guessing.

The only proper way to understand Mars is to go there ourselves, live there for a while, drill for minerals, explore… However, the first hurdle we hit when we think of space travel, or more appropriately space exploration, is, how do we get there? As with many things in life, we need technology to help us do this.

The human body is fragile, and needs some very basic conditions to be met in order to survive-whether in space or on Earth. It's as simple as providing air, food and water. But when it comes to space even this is difficult.  

In order to be able to travel in space, we need a lot more than engines and huge space cruisers. We need to have a plentiful supply of water, food, and oxygen, and we need to find ways to have enough of it on board our space vessels, with the ability to replenish our supplies. But then again, sending huge loads of supplies into space require better and more efficient rocket propulsion systems... the problems are endless!

When it comes to the computing technology required to explore space, it's obvious that we need really good computing machines, capable of making gargantuan calculations and accounting for millions of variables with incredible precision. When we talk in terms of millions and billions of kilometres, the tiniest of errors in calculation could send ships hundreds of thousands of kilometres off course.

We also need technology to help us build ships that use minimal amounts of electric power, and are capable of running for really long durations without problems-the last thing you'd want to see when approaching Mars is a computer screen flashing a blue screen  saying "Fatal Exception Error"!
NASA
Space. Mars. Technology. It's impossible to talk about these and not mention the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The most successful space agency ever, NASA is the premier agency responsible for almost all space exploration and discoveries in recent times. It is also the leading research agency for all things space-related. But what are they up to lately?



US President George W Bush, or one of his advisors, has noticed the need to speed things up a bit. In a paper sent to NASA in early 2004, Bush outlined the goals that NASA, and the US, should meet. These include:
  • Implementing a sustained human and robotic space program to explore the solar system and beyond
  • Returning to Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations
  • Completing the International Space Station, planned for the end of this decade
  • Starting no later than 2008, initiating a series of robotic missions to the Moon to prepare for and support future human exploration activities
  • Conducting robotic exploration of Mars to search for evidence of life, and preparing for future human exploration
  • Exploring asteroids, Jupiter's moons, and other bodies to search for evidence of life, and resources
It's patently visible that the US plans to spearhead the exploration of space, and has renewed its interest in doing so.
The interesting part of that paper was the emphasis on going back to the Moon!

The Moon
The very first step into space, and the finish-line of one of humanity's biggest races, it is widely acknowledged that the Moon holds the key to further space exploration.

Scientists have found traces of ice at the Moon's poles. These 'traces' could well supply water to many missions of the future, and so, it's obvious that it's NASA's first priority.

As mentioned in the US President's aims for space exploration, the words "Robotic Space Program" tell us that we will definitely use robots as the scouts, to precede humans in every exploration. NASA has great plans for robots-not just the Mars Rover-type bots that explore and send back data to us, but much more complex robots that can and will build habitats and basic infrastructure for  when the humans come. Yes, we know, that sounds like a great beginning for a sci-fi paperback, but perhaps that's because we really are making sci-fi a reality!

The plans, quite simply, are to set up a base on the Moon, from where we will be able to launch many missions to Mars and beyond. NASA already talks about robotic missions to Jupiter's moons, and some of us might be lucky enough to witness such adventures in our lifetimes.

What's New
But all this is theory, science fiction and supposition, and you'd be better off reading Issac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke than Digit for sci-fi. Though we'd love to know the answers to questions such as, "Will my great-grandchildren take vacations to the Moon?" or "Will I live to see a human set foot on Mars?", this article isn't about fantasy. It's about the research that NASA and its partners are doing. And this research is not just improving our chances of travelling further into space, but improving life right here on Earth. How? Let's find out.

Technologies
NASA has always helped with, funded, and researched cutting-edge technologies. Though the media's focus has always been NASA's space exploration plans, a lot of the technologies that are developed and used by NASA are not used exclusively in space. Yes, you can actually see a lot of these technologies being used in everyday (OK, maybe not everyday!) products!

Space-suits are perhaps the best researched and tested items in an astronaut's armoury. Of course, as with everything else, space-suits have many individual components that use cutting edge technology. For example, there's the problem of keeping an astronaut from freezing or frying when, say, on the Moon. Since temperatures can reach extremes of between 120 degrees to minus 150 degrees Celsius, they need all the protection they can get. Though we may think that the technology to keep the temperature inside the suit bearable is similar to that in a fireman's suit, nothing could be further from the truth.
Cooling
Space suits used today have a special liquid cooling system, that maintain body temperatures by using a battery-operated pump to pass cold water through the tubes that line the suit fabric. This system was devised by Bill Elkins, an ex-NASA researcher at their Ames Research Center. He later founded Game Ready (www.gameready.com), a company that makes equipment to help professional athletes treat injuries.

Their Game Ready Accelerated Recovery System helps in the treatment of sprains, bruises and post-surgery recovery. It is a computer-controlled unit that controls the flow of cold water to the specially designed flexible fabric wrap. It uses the same technology that's used in space-suits to control temperatures. The system is medically effective because of its ability to provide constant cooling and controlled compression. Soft tissue injuries now heal up to twice as fast because of this technology, and it's surely a boon to most professional or semi-professional athletes across the globe.

Filtration
Another very real problem when exploring space is the need for water. Since weight and volume have to be controlled on current spacecraft, storage of large amounts of water is impossible.

One method of conserving water is to make sure none is wasted. Distasteful as it sounds, the only way to conserve water in space is to recycle everything possible, including urine!

Now, normal water cleansing methods, such as distilling, require large amounts of energy to boil the water, and this is again a big no-no on a space flight. Like water, energy needs to be conserved as well! The only remaining option is filtration, which uses little or no energy. However, developing a filter capable of purifying water takes some doing! Well, they did it!

Argonide (www.argonide.com), a company that researches advanced filtration, for use in space and back on Earth as well, developed nano-aluminium fibres that are only two nanometres thick. What's better, these fibres, trademarked as NanoCeram, displayed amazing bio-adhesive properties, which would help in removing bacteria and viruses. When woven into a filter, these fibres were electro-positively charged, thus making all electro-negative particles cling to the filter-bacteria, viruses, dyes and other impurities.

If that's not enough, these fibres also displayed properties that can stimulate new bone growth. Tests showed that when a NanoCeram net was grafted into a shattered bone, it attracted and retained bone cells, and caused accelerated, flawless growth of new bones!

Currently, Argonide is developing personal filtration devices that you will be able to use when out camping, or for military personnel to protect against contaminated or poisoned water.

Engines
NASA has long been researching better materials for construction of vital elements such as those in engines, or other moving parts. Several years ago, they planned to develop an aluminium alloy that had higher strength and resistance at high temperatures, such as those encountered in space. The project was conducted by Jonathan Lee, a structural engineer in the Materials, Processes and Manufacturing Department at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and PoShou Chen, a
scientist from Morgan Research Corporation. When they succeeded, all the information was made public via the Internet, and public licensing made available.

This information intrigued the people at Bombadier Recreational Products Inc., a manufacturer of outboard motors, who promptly contacted NASA in April 2002. The result is their brand new outboard motor called Evinrude E-TEC (www.evinrude.com), which is marketed as "every boater's dream!"

Actually, the engine is remarkable: it doesn't require any oil changes, is not affected by extreme temperatures, and doesn't need tune-ups for at least three years of normal use. What's more, it's also "whisper quiet", so you won't scare away the fish as you approach!

All this is thanks to NASA's aluminium alloy, which is 2.5 times stronger than regular cast aluminium. However, what's absolutely incredible is that this special alloy is produced at a material cost of less than Rs 90 per kilo!


Liquid Metal?

NASA, the California Institute of Technology and the US Government invented a metal that had the properties of plastic. This will be used to build various components of space shuttles. Not only was this new form of metal more elastic, it was also much stronger than the highest grade titanium alloys. This is how Liquidmetal Inc. (www.liquidmetal.com) was born.

Unlike normal metals, Liquidmetal doesn't have a crystalline atomic structure; instead it has an amorphous atomic structure similar to plastics. This gives it high strength, hardness, elasticity and corrosion resistance. In addition, Liquidmetal has an amazing strength-to-weight ratio, making it extremely light, yet stronger than titanium.

Apart from building better hulls or components, Liquidmetal has found its way into sports goods such as racquets  (www.head. com), baseball bats (www.rawlings.com) and even a TAG Heuer (www.tagheuer.com) watch series! The watch casing is made of Liquid-metal and is scratchproof, dent-resistent and doesn't corrode, while the sports equipment offers enhanced power because of Liquid-metal's elasticity and strength advantage.

Another well-known manufacturer that was drawn to Liquidmetal was Vertu. Their latest Ascent phone collection has a Liquidmetal bezel and battery cover.

Imaging
One important aspect of space exploration is imaging. Since we send robots and computer-driven ships to the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond, which then transmit data (generally images and video) back to us, we have to make sure the imaging technology is top-notch.

Now, lenses and cameras have their own limitations and extracting still images from video always results in blurry images-since video uses frames to deliver smooth-looking movement, most video frames depict movement as blurs. But what if we could use software instead of hardware to calculate the movement and extract crystal-clear stills from video?

This not only applies to space then, and could also be used to extract great stills from your home videos. That's exactly what RedHawk Vision's Paparazzi software does!

The imaging algorithm that extracts still images from videos was developed by RedHawk (www.redhawkvision.com) and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. The algorithm was called the 'Real-Time Self-Contained Image-Motion Compensation for Spaceborne Imaging Instruments' algorithm-don't blame us, we didn't name it!

Basically, the algorithm calculates the movement in a scene, and repositions similar images to form a clear still picture of movement. At times it can create very psychedelic looking stills, as you can see in the examples provided. All you have to do is buy a Paparazzi Flash drive unit, connect it to a USB port, double-click the Paparazzi icon, and then play videos in Apple's QuickTime media player. Paparazzi automatically analyses the video and generates stills!

Using Paparazzi, you can now extract that favourite pose from a home video, and actually get decent enough quality to frame it and hang it on a wall! Meanwhile, NASA uses the technology to extract distortion-free images from its probes traveling through the galaxy-even extracting images from completely garbled video transmissions!


The Moon Again

The abovementioned technologies, which NASA helped develop for use in space exploration, have already been put to practical use in products that we can go out and buy. We haven't even scratched the surface yet, and providing any sort of detailed analysis would fill 98,16,345 issues of Digit! However, let's take a look at NASA's plans for a return to the Moon.

An article titled "How We'll Get Back To The Moon" on NASA's site says:
"A heavy-lift rocket blasts off, carrying a lunar lander and a "departure stage" needed to leave Earth's orbit. The crew launches separately, then docks their capsule with the lander and departure stage and heads for the Moon. Three days later, the crew goes into lunar orbit. The four astronauts climb into the lander, leaving the capsule to wait for them in orbit. After landing and exploring the surface for seven days, the crew blasts off in a portion of the lander, docks with the capsule and travels back to Earth. After a de-orbit burn, the service module is jettisoned, exposing the heat shield for the first time in the mission. The parachutes deploy, the heat shield is dropped and the capsule sets down on dry land."

Those were the details of how the first mission to the Moon will be carried out. The article continues, and explains what will happen next:
"With a minimum of two lunar missions per year, momentum will build quickly toward a permanent outpost. Crews will stay longer and learn to exploit the Moon's resources, while landers make one way trips to deliver cargo. Eventually, the new system could rotate crews to and from a lunar outpost every six months. Planners are already looking at the lunar south pole as a candidate for an outpost because of concentrations of hydrogen thought to be in the form of water, ice, and an abundance of sunlight to provide power.

"These plans give NASA a huge head start in getting to Mars. We will already have the heavy-lift system needed to get there, as well as a versatile crew capsule and propulsion systems that can make use of Martian resources. A lunar outpost just three days away from Earth will give us needed practice of "living off the land" away from our home planet, before making the longer trek to Mars."

Mars or not, we've already seen how NASA's research is improving the quality of life right here on Earth-and we're not complaining. You should pay www.nasa.gov a visit and take a look at the thousands of pictures, videos and articles on current research and their plans for conquering space.

Coming Down TO Earth
A lot of what's been said here may seem very futuristic; to some, perhaps, it may border on fiction. However, scientists and explorers for generations have surprised us and made the cynics eat humble pie for lunch and dinner!

The facts are that research is a never-ending phenomenon at places like NASA, and the success of projects that may have seemed incredible just a decade ago are already being used in the products we mentioned!

When the space explorers talk, we better listen, because space agencies are sending out one clear signal: for the betterment of mankind, space exploration and research is truly The Final Frontier!

Images courtesy NASA and Spinoff Magazine



Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.