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Mouse over the icons for more information about the Nautilus-X spacecraft

Illustration by Adrian Mann
Words by Jonathan O’Callaghan

When it comes to manned missions into deep space there are no shortage of proposals on the drawing board. People have dreamed up spacecraft with various fantastical elements, from futuristic propulsion engines to somewhat ambitious aesthetic designs, but one proposal that warrants a serious glance is Nautilus-X. It’s a spacecraft that builds largely on existing technology to make human exploration of the Solar System a realistic possibility, and at a reasonable price too.

Drawn up by NASA engineers Mark Holderman and Edward Henderson, this deep space vehicle might not be as exciting to look at as some of the other futuristic proposals being touted but its certainly one of the most promising. The full name of the vehicle is theNon-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration (Nautilus-X), while this type of spacecraft is known as a Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

Nautilus-X would be capable of supporting a crew of six for missions lasting from one month to two years. Although it might look like a mini space station, the whole thing is designed to be able to travel throughout the Solar System, be it near the Moon or Mars. Although not capable of descending to the surface of another world itself, it has docking ports to which landing craft can be attached.

The intention of the vehicle is that, once built, it could remain in space for many years with several different crews utilising it. For example, one crew could travel to Nautilus-X in an Orion spacecraft and then take the entire spacecraft to Mars for a mission lasting up to a year. They would then return in Nautilus-X at the conclusion of the mission and leave the spacecraft near Earth orbit, ready and waiting for another crew, while they travel back to the surface of Earth in their Orion capsule.

Such an implementation would allow multiple rotating crews to make use of the spacecraft on a variety of missions. Solar panels would provide the spacecraft with power, while on-board farms could provide astronauts with food. At the outset of a mission, though, it’s likely astronauts would need to bring some supplies with them, perhaps on a separate spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon.

Another key feature of Nautilus-X is, as you may have noticed in the illustration above, the centrifuge. It is well documented that prolonged exposure to space can have a debilitating effect on an astronaut’s health, in particular their muscle and bone strength. It is estimated that as much as 2 per cent of bone mass is lost for every month an astronaut is weightless in space, so providing an artificial gravity environment could be essential for long-term exploration missions. The centrifuge on Nautilus-X would provide between 51 to 69% of Earth’s gravity, allowing astronauts to recuperate bone mass they may have lost while on other parts of the spacecraft or outside on a mission. Such a centrifuge had been suggested as an additional module for the International Space Station to test the technology, but unfortunately that now seems to be on hold due to budgetary reasons.

On the subject of money, Nautilus-X carries with it a rather alluring price tag. The brains behind the project estimate it would cost around $3.7 billion (£2.3 billion), not even twice the price of NASA’s Curiosity rover, while development could be completed in just over five years. Such figures are attractive, especially for the money-conscious top dogs at NASA, so there is a chance that after further research this spacecraft may come to fruition.

But on that note, when could we expect to see any work on Nautilus-X begin? At the moment, NASA’s manned exploration funding is tied up in a number of projects, namely Orion, Commercial Crew Development (which includes funding for SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s upcoming manned vehicles), the ISS and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. The latter would be essential for launching and assembling the various components of this spacecraft in Earth orbit. Whether we will ever see Nautilus-X fly is up for debate, but it’s good to know that NASA has a sound proposal for a deep space exploration vehicle if it ever does decide to go down that route.


Nautilus-X: The multi-purpose NASA spacecraft that could take humans to the Moon and beyond

Take a look at this next-generation spacecraft that some NASA engineers believe will be capable of multiple trips to the Moon, Mars and other destinations.

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Mouse over the icons for more information

Illustration by Jay Wong
Words by Jonathan O’Callaghan

One of the arguments for colonising the Moon is that it contains a lot of material that may be useful not only on the Moon itself, but also back on Earth. This includes things like helium-3, an isotope of helium that some say could be used as fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants to provide a huge new source of energy.

If we are to colonise the Moon then we could do with an innovative and low cost way to regularly send this useful material back to Earth. After all, we don’t want to have to use numerous expendable rockets to continually transport cargo to and from the Moon.

So, with that in mind, some space enthusiasts have envisioned a railgun of sorts that would be able fire projectiles from the Moon to Earth. Using magnetic levitation, the structure would accelerate a payload to the necessary speed required to escape the gravity of the Moon and return to Earth, or perhaps rendezvous with a cargo spacecraft in lunar orbit for transportation to Earth. This concept was used in the 2009 movie “Moon”, with helium-3 being mined on the Moon and sent to Earth by such a machine, known as a lunar mass driver.

A lunar mass driver is basically a long tube along which a payload is accelerated using electromagnets. Rather than relying on expendable fuel like rocket propellant, a mass driver on the Moon could run on solar power. The idea of a mass driver is that when a payload is accelerated to a speed greater than the escape velocity of the Moon (2.4 kilometres or 1.5 miles per second), it will be released from the tube and travel into lunar orbit, where it can be picked up by a larger cargo spacecraft for use in space or transportation to Earth. Rather than sending large payloads, a lunar mass driver will launch multiple small payloads, possibly several per second depending on its design.

These proposals have been considered for use on Earth, but the lower gravity and lack of atmosphere on the Moon makes it a much more desirable location. Creating a mass driver on Earth that could propel a payload into orbit around our planet would be incredibly difficult. To reach and maintain low Earth orbit, for example, a spacecraft or payload needs to have a velocity of about 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) per second, or 28,000 kilometres (17,400 miles) per hour, and it would also have to contend with the Earth’s atmosphere and its relatively strong gravitational pull. By comparison, the Moon has no atmosphere and much lower gravity, meaning a payload can more easily be accelerated to the speed required to escape the Moon.

A lunar mass driver is, of course, something very much still in a concept stage. Few actual experiments have been carried out on the possibility of building any sort of mass driver, but if we are to one day colonise the Moon building such a structure could be imperative for the transportation of useful material to Earth.


Lunar mass driver: Why we should build a space gun on the Moon

How a magnetic railgun could one day launch material from the Moon to Earth

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Hover over the icons for more information. Illustration by Adrian Mann.

Sometimes when we envision the future of space exploration, we like to let our imagination get the better of ourselves. Today we’re seeing a new breed of rockets and space vehicles that are increasing our ability to access space like never before.

So when we come across a design like the Kankoh-maru, even though it’s blatantly obvious we won’t be seeing anything of the sort flying in our lifetimes, there’s no harm in dreaming of a future where such vehicles are commonplace, right?

The Kankoh-maru, as seen above, was a concept devised by the Japanese Rocket Society in 1993. Named after the steam-powered Japanese Kankō Maru warship, this bizarre egg-shaped vehicle would take off and land by itself, known as VTVL (vertical takeoff and landing), as a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spacecraft. The whole thing is reusable and, with each launch, the Kankoh-maru could take 50 people into orbit.

In recent years a variety of tests on VTVL vehicles have been carried out, most notably SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket, but nothing on the scale of the Kankoh-maru has ever really been considered, let alone tested.

Nonetheless, the design of the Kankoh-maru is certainly intriguing. This vehicle, weighing about 550 metric tons (1,200,000 pounds), would tower 23.5 metres (77 feet) above the ground and have a diameter at its base of 18 metres (59 feet).

The spacecraft is split into two sections, with a propulsion section at the bottom using four boosters and eight sustainer rockets providing thrust at sea level and in space respectively. Above the propulsion section is the payload section, with the cockpit sitting at the very top.

The purpose of this spacecraft would be to take a large number of crew into Earth orbit, either to a orbiting space hotel or just for short orbital trips. The ambitious goals of the spacecraft would see 700,000 passengers a year being taken into space via a fleet of 52 Kankoh-marus with a ticket price of $25,000 (£16,000) a head. Each of the 52 vehicles would be expected to fly 300 flights a year.

Maybe one day vehicles such as this will regularly take paying customers into space, offering extended stays on orbiting hotels or acting as the first leg of a journey to a futuristic lunar colony. Who knows. For now, we’ll simply have to imagine what could come to pass in a future where space travel is accessible to all, and the Kankoh-maru certainly fits the bill of affording that accessibility even if it is, you know, somewhat ambitious in its design.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


This is one of the most ambitious spacecraft that’ll (probably) never fly in your lifetime

The Kankoh-maru is a reusable spacecraft that would be capable of taking 50 people to and from orbit – if it can even be built, that is.

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Scroll over the icons for more information. Illustration by Adrian Mann.

Around Jupiter lurks Ganymede, one of the four Galilean moons and the largest natural satellite in the Solar System. In fact, with a diameter of about 5,270 kilometres (3,275 miles), it is larger even than the planet Mercury and has almost twice the mass of Earth’s Moon.

However, it is not the size of Ganymede that is of most interest. This giant moon, 640 million kilometres (400 million miles) from Earth, has an icy surface and might be hiding a saltwater ocean underground, while its atmosphere bears tantalising hints of oxygen and may even possess a thin ozone layer. For these reasons it has garnered a lot of interest for future exploration missions and one of those, Russia’s Ganymede Lander, could touch down on the surface in the next 20 years.

The Ganymede Lander would launch along with the European Space Agency’s Juipter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft in 2022, arriving at Jupiter around 2030 after using gravitational assists to reach the giant planet. The collaboration would allow JUICE to scour Ganymede for a suitable landing site for the lander, although a separate Russian orbiter might also join the launch to provide a back-up option to find a landing site.

The lander itself would be a stationary vehicle, touching down on a region of interest on Ganymede to perform scientific analysis. A large antenna on the top would communicate with Earth, while numerous instruments including cameras and spectrometers would analyse the surrounding area. The main focus of the mission would be astrobiology.

This would be the first such mission ever attempted in the Jovian system. So far spacecraft have landed on Venus, the Moon, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan; landing on Ganymede would mark the sixth body in the Solar System (including Earth) that humanity has left its mark upon.

The Ganymede Lander is still in a concept stage at the moment. Russia will spend up to $1 million (£650,000) on research and development for the spacecraft in 2014 to determine the feasibility of such a mission, with construction on the first prototypes to begin in 2017 if all goes to plan.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


Could we land on Ganymede? Russia says yes, and here’s how they’d do it

Take a look at Russia’s plan to land a spacecraft on the largest moon in the Solar System.

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On 6 August 2012 the world watched in awe as a rover the size of a car descended to the surface of Mars under a rocket-powered contraption and touched down on the ground. Almost a decade in the making the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as the Curiosity rover, has been a massive success story for NASA. Never before has such a large and complicated vehicle landed on another world. Our timeline below shows you just what the rover has been up to on the Red Planet.

In the 12 months Curiosity has been operational it has been making some tentative steps towards achieving its numerous goals, which include assessing Mars for signs of past and present habitability. NASA has been careful to only take baby steps so far, but in the next year Curiosity will be pushed to the limits as it explores its surroundings and heads towards its ultimate goal, Mount Sharp (a mountain also known as Aeolis Mons), which rises 5.5 kilometres (3.4 miles) above the floor of Gale crater and has layers of sediments that may hold clues revealing the history of Mars.

Images and media courtesy of NASA

Space Exploration

An interactive timeline of Curiosity’s first year on Mars

12 months on from one of the most ambitious landings ever attempted, we take a look back at what NASA’s rover has been up to on the Red Planet.

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Illustration by Adrian Mann

In the 1980s the Soviet Union designed and built a heavy-lift rocket known as Energia that was comparable to the Space Shuttle, and even the Saturn V, in its lifting capability of 100,000kg (220,000 pounds). It successfully launched the unmanned Soviet Buran shuttle, but was retired not long after.

Since then Russia has rarely delved into the world of super launches. Their biggest rocket currently in operation is the Proton, capable of taking 21,600kg (48,000 lbs) into orbit. That’s quite sizeable in the realm of modern rockets, but it doesn’t come close to the eventual power of NASA’s Space Launch System, which will fly for the first time in 2017.

So for the last few years the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has been drawing up ideas for a mega rocket called the Angara 7. It’s still in a concept stage, but Roscosmos is very much aware of a need for a heavy-lift launcher if they are to carry out their stated goals of taking humans to the Moon.

Rocket size comparison

The rocket currently being touted, which is illustrated above, would be capable of taking at least 35 tons into orbit, although it’s likely this would be upgraded to make a lunar mission possible. Russia has a strong history in the launcher industry with its Proton, Progress and Soyuz rockets being incredibly successful for the past few decades. The Angara 7 could be the rocket Roscosmos needs to begin manned exploration beyond Earth orbit.

Space Exploration

Exclusive illustration of Russia’s upcoming Angara 7 heavy-lift rocket

This huge next-generation launch vehicle could become Russia’s biggest modern rocket.

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The testing of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and many other similar projects in various states of development means that we are about to enter an era of commercial spaceflight.

This will bring about huge changes in the aerospace industry, which has prompted the European Space Agency (ESA) to look at how it should respond to this new environment. Being only able to help and fund commercial suborbital spaceplane projects in Europe, ESA has proposed the construction of a generic European “Cryogenic Sub-orbital Spacecraft”.

ESA looked at three different reusable spaceplane concepts that could use the Vinci rocket engine that is currently being developed as an upper stage rocket for their Ariane launch vehicle. The first had a conventional tail assembly and wings, the second had a forward canard, wings and butterfly tail assembly, and the third had a canard and winglets.

The ESA report favoured the second vehicle concept, as the design allows it to carry payloads on its back that can be launched into low Earth orbit. It would have a total weight of 13,920 kilograms (30,625 pounds) at takeoff, and would operate from an airstrip like a conventional aircraft. Using a fuel load of 7,515 kilograms (16,534 pounds), it would blast the craft to a maximum speed of 4,176 kilometres (2,595 mph).

The Vinci engine, which is capable of being fired up to 5 times on each mission, takes the two crew and six passengers to a height of 107.65 kilometres (66.8 miles) where several minutes of weightlessness can be experienced before the craft glides back down to Earth.

This vision of a potential Vinci spaceplane would use the technology currently being developed by ESA, and it would be able to use ESA’s expertise in astronaut training and space medicine. ESA is also able to help the flow and exchange of information between interested parties and to help meet the demands of European Aviation Safety Agency certification and other European legal requirements.

The Vinci spaceplane would certainly be able to send a variety of payloads into orbit at a lower cost per launch than conventional rockets, and could be equal to the commercial suborbital spaceplanes being developed in the United States. Whether any European companies are willing or able to take up the technological and economic challenges that need to be surmounted, before the Vinci spaceplane can take flight, is something only time will tell.


Forget the Shuttle – the ESA’s Vinci spaceplane is the future of space travel

Our exclusive illustration gives you the world’s first opportunity to see what this new concept vehicle from the ESA could look like.

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This stunning image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the individual galaxies UGC 1810 (right) and UGC 1813 (left) in the process of colliding. Together, this pair of interacting galaxies is known as Arp 273. The interaction of galaxies is thought to be relatively common in the universe, particularly within galactic clusters, but the opportunity to directly observe one such as this is rare.

The two galaxies, with their nuclei separated by 100,000 light years, are located 300 million light years from Earth in the Andromeda constellation. A collision is actually thought to have already occurred, with UGC 1813 passing through the five times more massive UGC 1810. As a result, the smaller galaxy is now showing signs of intense star formation at its nucleus. It is possible, though, that they will collide again due to their gravitational attraction.

Most galactic collisions result in the merging of the two galaxies’ cores, but it’s unknown if that will happen in this case. What can be seen is a ‘bridge’ of sorts between the two where their spirals have been pulled apart by the other. It is thought that the interaction of Arp 273 may bear similarities to the eventual fate of our own galaxy when we collide with Andromeda in 4.5 billion years.

Image courtesy of NASA/ESA/HHT

Deep Space

This is what two colliding galaxies look like

These two interacting galaxies are providing us with a rare opportunity to observe a galactic collision.

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This is not some crazy idea or ridiculous flight of fancy; inflatable spacecraft have already been tried and tested, and it will not be long until the International Space Station is joined by these rather more expandable brothers and sisters in Earth orbit.

Bigelow Aerospace flew two unmanned inflatable spacecraft, Genesis I and II, in 2006 and 2007 respectively to test this technology. They are precursors to Bigelow Aerospace’s next venture, the BA 330 (above).

In 2015, Bigelow Aerospace will dock an inflatable module with the ISS to further test the concept, with a fully-fledged inflatable space station due by the end of the decade.

For more on inflatable space stations, check out issue 8 of All About Space magazine.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny


Inside Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space station

Take a tour of the expandable habitat that could soon be a destination for astronauts in Earth orbit.

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As the seasons change, so does the night sky and as you gain a familiarity with the stars and planets you will notice new constellations and astronomical objects belonging to our Solar System, as well as our immediate portion of the Universe, creep into view from winter through to autumn.

Stepping outdoors into a clear night armed with layers of warm clothing and a hot drink, as well as an optional deck chair (to avoid a sore neck in the morning from looking up!), you have all you really need to learn your way around the night sky for your very first evening’s session; you might not realise it, but your eyes alone are a wonderful device when it comes to taking in what nature has to offer. Take a look at the illustration above to get to grips with the celestial sphere so you can perfect your observation techniques.

Tomorrow: How to use a sky chart


Stargazing LIVE Astronomy Week Part Three: Understand the Celestial Sphere

What is this imaginary sphere that surrounds the Earth?

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The following is an excerpt from our article ‘Juno: The journey to Jupiter’. To read the full article check out issue 7 of All About Space, on sale now.

Mission dates: August 2011 – October 2017

Stargazers have pondered Jupiter for millennia – as the third brightest object in the sky, it demands attention. When Galileo pointed his telescope that way, 400 years ago, he was greeted by colourful clouds and orbiting moons, intensifying the fascination. But even after all these years scrutinising with increasingly powerful telescopes and spacecraft, we still haven’t unlocked all its mysteries, because the outer cloud cover has hidden its interior working from view. Now Juno is on its way, armed with an array of instruments to peek behind the curtain.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will reach Jupiter in 2016. While there it will study Jupiter’s clouds, analyse the atmosphere, measure its gravitational field and much more. After 33 orbits it will purposefully be de-orbited to burn up in Jupiter’s atmosphere in October 2017.

Space Exploration

NASA’s next mission to Jupiter

Find out how the Juno spacecraft will unlock the secrets of Jupiter, the biggest planet in the Solar System, when it arrives in 2016.

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Surrounding the Earth are hundreds of mineral-rich rocks, or asteroids, containing what might be billions or even trillions of dollars worth of resources, including metal and water. The possibility of tapping into these unclaimed goldmines has been a long-held and seemingly unobtainable dream, but it might be one that is now moving closer to reality.

Consider the stats, and you’ll start to realise why mining asteroids could be so important for the future of the human race. Just one near-Earth asteroid several kilometres in size could contain more precious metal than has ever been used by humanity, and enough water to power fleets of rockets.

The problem, as is ever the case with new space exploration proposals, is money. Who’s going to stump up the cash to mount an expedition to an asteroid that, for one, could fail, and two, would require huge infrastructure to even be considered a moderate success? The answer could be in the form of private enterprises with an eye for adventure and discovery rather than a significant return in investment.

One company that made headlines earlier this year to do just that was Planetary Resources. A conglomeration of entrepreneurs and technicians including co-founder Peter Diamandis and film director James Cameron, this ambitious venture will be the first to aim to mine asteroids and return their valuable resources to Earth or use them in space.

To read the rest of this article, check out issue 6 of All About Space magazine, on sale now.

Illustration by Adrian Mann


Could mining asteroids open up the Solar System’s resources to humanity?

How could we extract valuable resources from floating space rocks near Earth?

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Note: Each marker is immediately below the referenced point of interest so as not to obscure it from view.

The Moon has accompanied our planet in its orbit for billions of years. Spared from atmospheric erosion, its surface charts a pristine geological (or rather ‘selenological’) record of Solar System history, from massive scale volcanism to catastrophic, seemingly apocalyptic bombardment from space.

The rugged surface catches the light of the Sun, and casts dynamic and intricate shadow patterns throughout the Lunar Month, about 29.5 days. If we look at the Moon from one night to the next, we can see its various craters, mountains and plains illuminated from different angles, giving us a tremendous sense of 3D during the mornings and evenings local to those features.

Scanning along the Moon’s terminator – the line where day meets night – is arguably the best way to get familiar with this fascinating landscape, but you’ll need a telescope for best results. Even a small telescope will produce awe-inspiring images.

Image courtesy of NASA


10 great sights to see on the Moon

Earth’s nearest neighbour has always captivated our imagination. Why not take a telescopic tour?

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The Quicklaunch project, above, plans to put into reality Verne’s 19th Century dream of using a cannon to launch space vehicles, though in this case it will be used to send cargo into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) rather than humans to the Moon.

The cannon, known as the Quicklauncher, will be submerged 183 metres (600 feet) under water. The initial scheme is to build a 400-metre (1,300-foot) long QL-100 launcher to carry payloads of 45 kilograms (100 pounds) into LEO. To benefit from the slingshot effect of the Earth’s rotation, it would be located near the equator. It would cost $50 million (£32 million) to build and be capable of launching ten vehicles a day.

To find out more check out issue 4 of All About Space, on sale now.

Image credit: Adrian Mann


How a giant underwater cannon could fire us into space

Jules Verne imagined using a cannon to send humans to the Moon. Now one could be built to send cargo into Earth orbit.

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The heart of a black hole is its singularity, a single point in space containing all the matter that originally formed the black hole, as well as anything that fell in after it formed. Like a star, the black hole has mass equal to the combined mass of all this material, but it has nearly no size in the sense of volume. In other words, it would be impossible to measure the diameter of a black hole. Instead, the mass is compressed into an infinitely dense point. At this point, the normal laws of physics we know and love don’t apply.

As you get closer to this point, the pull of gravity increases, in the same way the Sun’s gravitational pull increases as you approach it. As the pull of gravity increases, the necessary speed of movement to counteract it, called the escape velocity, increases too. At a certain proximity to the singularity, the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light (300,000 kilometres per second/186,000 miles per second), the maximum speed anything can travel. In other words, beyond this point, called the event horizon, it’s absolutely impossible to escape being swallowed into the singularity. The distance between the event horizon and the singularity, named the ‘Schwarzschild radius’, depends on the mass of the black hole. The more massive the singularity is, the further out its event horizon is.

When a black hole is active, it’s surrounded by an accretion disk. As gases and other matter orbiting the black hole get closer to the event horizon, the intense gravitational pull of the black hole accelerates them, generating intense friction. The friction heats the gases, causing them to release electromagnetic energy, such as X-rays or visible light.

Along with accretion disks, scientists have observed bright jets propelling matter away from black holes. The leading explanation for these powerful jets is that the rotational movement of the accretion disk generates a strong magnetic field. This magnetic field, in turn, carries matter away from the accretion disk at the speed of light. This steady syphoning of matter reduces the angular momentum of the matter in the accretion disk, causing it to fall into the black hole.

Deep Space

What’s inside a black hole?

Take a journey with us into the phenomenon that bends space and time.

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Getting into space is no easy feat. At the moment we use huge tanks of propellant powered by giant explosions at their base, which are better known as rockets, but these are both dangerous and very expensive.

That’s why various agencies have spent years looking for other ways to reach space. Previously we’ve looked at space planes, but this time we’re focusing on a more ambitious way to have a constant connection to space.

The idea of a space elevator was first inspired by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. In principle it sounds simple – have a tether extend from the surface of Earth to space and just travel up and down it. In practice, however, it’s incredibly difficult to construct such a device. For starters, there are almost no known materials strong enough or that can be manufactured in sufficient quantities to create a cable tens of thousands of kilometres long. Second, the tether would need to be anchored both at a geostationary station and further out with a counterweight point to ensure it didn’t break. Finally, you’ll need some sort of elevator that can attach itself to the cable and travel into space.

Thankfully, there are solutions. One of the primary candidates for the cable’s material is carbon nanotubes, which could possess the tensile strength needed for such a structure. Meanwhile, a counterweight beyond the orbit of the space station could be an asteroid or an additional space station. This would ensure the cable had a centre of gravity beyond the space station it was attached to, allowing it to remain anchored in space. Finally, by making the cable much wider at its centre point, cars could climb up it without destroying it. The counterweight would move to ensure the cars did not cause the cable to rotate too much and be destroyed. There are also several proposed methods to power the cars including solar power and wireless energy transfer.

In 2012, Tokyo-based company Obayashi Corporation announced plans to build an operational space elevator by 2050. Although the project is merely in a concept phase, Obayashi Corp’s proposal (pictured above) isn’t too out of this world. We won’t be seeing one any time soon but, if all goes to plan, by 2050 we could all be taking regular trips to the stars.

Space elevator, space plane or a rocket – which would you choose to get to space? Let us know below.

All images © 2012 Obayashi Corporation.


How to build a stairway to heaven

In the near future, could we be taking a space elevator into Earth orbit?

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The Hayabusa probe, built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), was launched on a Japanese M-V rocket on 9 May 2003 from the Uchinoura Space Centre in Japan. Its mission was to become the first man-made object to return samples from an asteroid – in this case Itokawa, an S-Type asteroid chosen for its occasional proximity to Earth and its interesting iron and magnesium-silicate surface.

To obtain the necessary speed to reach Itokawa 186 million miles (300 million km) away, Hayabusa used its ion and chemical engines to orbit the Sun for more than a year. This provided continual acceleration, and when it finally approached Earth again it performed a swing-by to propel itself towards the Itokawa asteroid two years after its launch.

Communication to and from Hayabusa at the asteroid took 40 minutes, so it had to finish most of its mission alone. Upon its approach it dropped a 10cm-wide sphere with a reflective surface onto Itokawa. By shining light onto the sphere, Hayabusa could calculate its distance to the ground.

The probe was supposed to drop a lander, named Minerva, onto the surface. However, the lander missed the surface, and JAXA instead decided to land Hayabusa directly on the asteroid. Attempts to fire a ball bearing into the ground to kick up dust were unsuccessful, but fortunately the power of its engines disturbed enough dust to be collected inside a capsule.

After leaving the asteroid it lost all propulsion barring two ion engines, in addition to experiencing a communications failure with mission controllers. However, thanks to some clever workarounds including the use of the Sun’s pressure against the solar panels to help steer the spacecraft, Hayabusa eventually limped home three years behind schedule.

Upon arrival at Earth the capsule containing the sample from Itokawa separated from the probe, with the latter burning up as planned in the atmosphere and the former landing safely in Australia on 13 June 2010. However, all was not over just yet. JAXA were still unsure if Hayabusa had successfully retrieved samples or not. It was not confirmed until several months later that the particles in the sample container were from Itokawa, bringing to an end a remarkable mission that had been so close to failure but eventually came up trumps with the sample JAXA were looking for.

Image courtesy of JAXA and Akihiro Ikeshita.

Space Exploration

The incredible story of the first mission to mine an asteroid

How the Japanese mission that seemed destined to fail returned the first asteroid samples to Earth.

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NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft, which comprises the Galileo Orbiter and Space Probe, atop a Space Shuttle in 1989, using a 38-month orbit of Venus and the Earth’s gravitational pull to gain the necessary speed to reach Jupiter.

While the Galileo Orbiter was designed to orbit and study Jupiter and its moons, the Galileo Probe was released near Jupiter and was sent into the gas giant itself on 7 December 1995. It entered the atmosphere of Jupiter at 30 miles per second (46km per second), the highest impact speed ever achieved by a man-made object. Amazingly, Jupiter’s dense atmosphere slowed the craft to 0.07 miles per second (0.12km per second) in just four minutes.

The probe’s heat shield, made of carbon phenolic, was able to withstand the 15,500°C ball of plasma caused by this sudden deceleration, producing light brighter than the Sun’s surface. It remained active for about 78 minutes as it passed through Jupiter’s atmosphere, losing more than half of its mass in the process before being crushed by the huge pressure.

Wrapped in black and gold blankets to provide insulation and protect against micrometeorites, the probe conducted nine experiments that measured Jupiter’s atmospheric structure. It discovered the presence of a large amount of argon, krypton and xenon. For these to form Jupiter would need to be at a temperature of -240°C, suggesting it once orbited much further from the Sun earlier in its lifetime.

The only other man-made object to enter Jupiter’s atmosphere was the accompanying Galileo Orbiter, which was set on an intentional fatal collision course with Jupiter in 2003 so that it did not accidentally contaminate any nearby moons by crashing on them.

Image courtesy of NASA

Space Exploration

The probe that survived for 78 minutes inside Jupiter

The Galileo Space Probe was the first man-made object to ever enter Jupiter’s atmosphere.

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Launching probes is very expensive as they can be extremely heavy. This means that if we need to speed up a probe or change its course, extra fuel needs to be taken into space and this increases costs. Using planets to ‘slingshot’ probes is something of a ‘cheat’ to increase their speed through the Solar System. When a slingshot around a planet is performed a small amount of momentum is transferred from the planet to the probe. This works by slowing the planet down by a tiny amount, but because it is far larger than the probe, the probe speeds up by a great deal. A good and recent example of this is the New Horizons probe that is currently en route to Pluto. New Horizons got just such a speed boost from Jupiter and gained a 9,000kph (6,000mph) speed increase. These manoeuvres can make space flight for inter-planetary probes much cheaper.

Answered by Josh Barker, National Space Centre

Image courtesy of NASA.

Solar System

Take a ride on the Interplanetary Superhighway

Find out how probes use gravity to travel huge distances in the Solar System.