Japanese first space-based Solar Power Plant is operational
Concept of capturing energy and delivering it to Earth
Space Solar Power System (SSPS) is positioned in geostationary orbit, 22,400 miles above the equator. Several square miles of photovoltaic dishes arrays are collecting solar energy, which is 5 times stronger in space than on Earth. Energy is converted onboard the power station into a laser, at 42% conversion efficiency and stored. When SSPS is located above Japan, solar energy is beamed onto a water-based station near Tokyo and used to power the city. At least one gigawatt of energy is generated, which is an equivalent of a Nuclear Power Plant.
Japan committed to building the first space solar power station in 1998, when research began at JAXA. Energy generated this way is at least 6 times cheaper than any other source for an average consumer and is ecologically safe for the environment. Solar energy produced by our star will last 4-5 billions of years, meaning that it is virtually an inexhaustable resource. Both environmental and dwindling resources concerns affected Japan's decision to invest into a SSPS.(2)
First concepts for a space based solar power station emerged in the middle of the 20th century. NASA was funding research into its own space solar power station prototype, but it got rejected in the beginning of the 21st century. Following success of the Japanese program, other countries are now developing even more ambitious space-based power plants. However, by the time SSPS becomes operational, ground-based clean energy photovoltaic technology have seen exponential rise of effectiveness and rapidly dwindling production costs.
Titan Saturn System Mission delivers a hot air balloon & a floating probe to Saturn's largest moon
Concept of three integral components of the TSSM
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A comprehensive mission to Titan has been on the agenda ever since the mysterious giant moon was observed by the Voyager mission in the early 1980's. Titan was thoroughly studied, for the first time, in 2005 by the Cassini–Huygens mission. This generated considerable interest in the future exploration of the largest moon of Saturn.
Titan is a world unlike any other in the Solar System. It shares some similarities with Earth, such as a dense atmosphere and liquid lakes and seas. These similarities, however, are also the dramatic differences that exist between Earth and Titan. Due to the extreme cold conditions as those that exist on Titan, surface water can only exist in a solid state, while the liquid is composed of methane.
Surface temperature is approximately 179 °C, or 290 °F. Consequently, same materials as those that exist on Earth, which are also found on Titan, are often in a different state of matter. Atmosphere on Titan is overwhelmingly made up of Nitrogen, which is a chemical element that dominates Earth's atmosphere as well. The surface on Titan is considered to be geologically young, meaning that it is rapidly transformed by various natural means of erosion, much like on Earth. Geologically speaking old surfaces are usually covered with craters, because they preserve all their features for billions of years. There are also signs of active cryovolcanism; volcanic eruptions possibly spewing out water from a possible underground water ocean. These and other features that characterize Titan make it an intriguing destination for exploration in the Solar System.
Another of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, is part of this mission. Enceladus is one of only three known geologically active extraterrestrial bodies in the Solar System. In 2005 Cassini spacecraft studied the moon and revealed fascinating details. We now know that part of the surface is young, it has been recently tectonically deformed. Cassini discovered that on the southern polar region, active cryovolcanism eruptions were spewing water vapor into space. Surface is now believed to be almost entirely made out of water ice. Saturn is, apparently, exerting gravitation influence, also known as orbital resonance that is cyclically heating up the moon’s interior. Analysis of particles of ice by the Cassini spacecraft determined that it was salt water. Consequently, scientists arrived at a consensus that it is very likely that underneath the icy surface, a liquid salt water ocean is present.
Thus, Titan and Enceladus are some of the most fascinating planetary objects in the Solar System. Mission architecture of the Titan Saturn System Mission includes two robots, one a montgolfiere hot air balloon and other a liquid-lake lander, both are unique concepts that have never been tried before in space exploration.
The orbiter will act as a mothership for the two landers, it will release them during a Titan flyby and will proceed to study the Saturn system. The focus of the orbiter is going to be on Titan, Saturn's magnetosphere and on analyzing water molecules ejected from Enceladus. According to NASA Astrobiologists, it is possible that primitive extraterrestrial life forms currently exist on Enceladus, perhaps by consuming emergy produced from thermal vents, and it may be caught by the orbiting probe together with emanated water molecules. The orbiter will also be equipped with instruments designed to conduct further observations of Titan by peering through its thick atmosphere and, thus, mapping more of its surface during flyby's. Total mass at the time of launch of the orbiter including its on-board elements is over 6200 kg.
Click on the image to see it in greater resolution.
One of the insertion probes is a first hot air balloon ever to be deployed in another world. Taking advantage of the dense atmosphere on Titan will allow scientists to study the surface from an altitude of approximately 10 kilometres and to complete at least a single circumnavigatory flight. This unique in-situ element of the mission would allow us to explore Titan in great detail, for a duration of between six months and a year, and to cover large areas in a timely manner. Besides surface composition mapping it will also utilize radar sounding of the subsurface. Total weight of the hot air balloon is about 600 kg.
The other Titan intertion probe is a battery operated sea floating robotic vessel, designated for a splash in the liquid methane of the northern mare area. It will operate for at least nine hours, becoming the first floating device in the history of space exploration. Primary goal of the robotic vessel is to sample rich organic presence in the liquid methane lakes and possibly identify some forms of alien life. The weight of the lander is calculated to be 190 kg.
These probes will study Titan's rich environment and diverse geology, that includes lakes and river valleys of liquid methane, volcanoes where the active ingredient is water and meteorological cycles reminiscent of Earth. Abundance in organic molecules, even by Earth standards, found on Titan, may offer evidence to the evolution of life in the cosmic perspective. Information gathered by the in-situ probes will be relayed to the orbiter that will operate for years in the Saturn system.
By this time the propulsion system envisioned in the original report may be too outdated. Despite the Jupiter Europa Mission getting priority status over TSSM, breakthroughs in propulsion may be put it behind by a margin of just a few years, as presented in this hypothetical chronology. The actual date could be a few years later.
Six astronauts land on Mars for the first time
VASIMR engine-type Mars-bound spacecraft
Astronauts remain on the Martian surface for approximately 500 days. Their base is semi-mobile, capable of long-range exploration. Using Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket Propulsion the trip to Mars taken approximately a month. While mission is managed by NASA, it includes several additional space agencies, primarily European Space Agency and a number of private companies. Mission objectives are: search for present and past signs of life, studying present and ancient climate, study geology and geophysics, prepare for sustained future settlement and conduct in-situ experiments. (1)
VASIMR spacecraft concept design, notice hydrogen tanks
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
Engine: Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket Propulsion is a propulsion system for traveling in space. First concepts were developed by individual scientists within NASA in 1970’s. It was first tested on the International Space Station in 2014. By early 2020’s Vasimr engine was utilized to position government and commercial satellites in Earth’s orbit. Propulsion is achieved by Nuclear Reactors heating up plasma through electric fields to extreme temperatures, plasma is then directed by magnetic fields out of the engine, creating thrust, achieving velocity of 123,000 miles per hour is. This is substantially faster than conventional, chemical propulsion rocket systems. However, VASIMR still requires traditional chemical rockets to reach Earth’s orbit. Plasma engine depends on the vacuum of outer space to function; it cannot be used to take off from Earth. Unlike conventional chemical propulsion systems that use their fuel in a single, controlled explosion, plasma engine sustains its propulsion over the entire travel time, which allows it to maneuver and even turn around and head back, in case of emergency. VASIMR powered rocket is fueled with Hydrogen, which also acts as a shield for the crew against radiation. Chemical rocket propulsion would have taken six to seven months for a crew of astronauts to reach Mars, during favorable cosmic alignments. VASIMR propulsion, on the other hand, now allows for this trip to last less than a month.
Human exploration of Mars is significantly more costly, dangerous and difficult, in comparison to robotic missions. However, it has a number of advantages, besides an enormous symbolic victory for the involved parties: despite exponential growth of computing power of computers, resulting in increasingly more sophisticated Artificial Intelligence, human cognitive skills still exceed those of robots; human explorers can recognize obstacles, as well as advantages, far quicker than a robot. In physical activities, robots lack in dexterity and speed, but compensate in strength. By early 2030’s robotic capabilities are incomparable with those of their ancestors from twenty years earlier, but are still incapable of replacing human presence in space exploration. These and other advantages are not the only reason why human exploration of Mars was placed on agenda, more importantly it is a natural step for mankind in its quest of cosmic exploration.
Mars habitats, delivered prior to human visitation, serve as main quarters
Click on the image to enlarge it
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
Mission to Mars started in 2033 with unmanned cargo trips to the destination, including Mars surface habitat lander, which remained in orbit until human arrival. Also Mars ascent vehicle, transportation gear, surface exploration assets, means of producing ascent propellant, more specifically, oxygen, in-situ, on the Martian surface. By 2035 six crew members arrive on Mars, having supplies that exceed their needs by a large margin, for safety reasons. They live and work on Mars for 500 days, growing vegetation (mainly for experimental purposes, rather than survival needs) and conducting routine scientific operations. Numerous robots work alongside with astronauts. Astronauts have two rovers at their disposal for transportation, pressurized, for longer trips, and non-pressurized for movement around the base. Each member of the crew becomes a celebrity on Earth; their achievements are broadcasted in video journals which are distributed through every media available.
Public interest in space exploration is at an all time high. Governments and private sector are investing into research for practical exploitation of Mars, including permanent settlement in the near future. Most plans are integrated into combined missions, rather than completely separate endeavors. Ascent-Descent vehicle is reminiscent, in concept, of the Apollo Moon landing craft. However, it utilizes locally produced oxygen for life off. It carries exclusively the crew, gathered material samples are lifted on another return-sample vehicle, similar in design to earlier robotic return-sample missions to Mars. After the mission is over in 2037, long analysis of data ensues, simultaneous to development of permanent Martian base mission. It is eventually decided that permanent Martian scientific outpost will be funded by governments, private corporations and by donations of wealthy sponsors seeking adventure and personal touristic opportunities on the Red Planet.
Mars Descent/Ascent vehicle
Click on the image to enlarge it
Credit: Courtesy of NASA/nasaimages.org
Subsurface ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa is probed with a sophisticated cryobot and an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle
Artistic imagination of AUV probing hydrothermal venting on the bottom of the ocean on Europa
Click on the image to see it in full resolution
Mission to study Europa's ocean has been proposed as early as 1990's by NASA. A less ambitious mission was funded in the early 2000's under U.S. President Bush, it was called Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, a lander was not seriously proposed, but the mission was cancelled in favor of more expensive manned operations. However, the Europa Jupiter System Mission of the 2020's gathered a wealth of information that made an on site ice-penetrating exploration possible. Most funding was secured by the U.S. government through NASA, however, ESA, JAXA and private space-tourism companies became involved as well. The latter did so for the sake of advertisement. Three revolutionary aspects of this mission included; (1) a nuclear-powered electric propulsion system, (2) ice-penetrating cryobot, concept of which has been tested for decades in Antarctica's Lake Vostok, (3) the most advanced onboard A.I.system of the submersible vehicle. Remote-controlling the submersible was out of the question due to the distance of 1 light-year hour from the Earth. Human operators would not have had the ability to respond to unexpected terrain and obstacles. Artificial Intelligence system had to think of itself, deciding where to go, how to maneuver around obstacles in a 3D environment, identifying unusual, possibly biologic, features and more.
Artificial Intelligence on robotic hardware has been utilized by NASA for decades, most prominently on a series of rovers on the surface of Mars. Never before, however, was A.I. utilized to, essentially, conduct an entire mission of highest importance without human interference. In later decades this practice became commonplace.
Nuclear-powered electrical propulsion spacecraft system rendering
In 2037 the laser penetrating mothership spacecraft was inserted into Europa's orbit. After identifying a suitable, smooth, surface, the landing craft was released. Using thrusters it landed precisely on the designated location and released the ice-melting cryobot which then proceeded to melt the move through the ice, melting it, for approximately 10 miles, until it rechead the liquid ocean. As the cryobot melted through the ice, it left information relays behind, in a sequential manner. Upon reaching the liquid ocean, crybot released two submersible A.I. controlled vehicles capable of acquiring high definition visual data, identifying hydrothermal vents, building a 3D map of the physical features and looking for signs of biology, present or past. Two submersibles were sent to prevent an unexpected malfunction of a single unit to render the entire mission a failure. This mission, along with human visitation to Mars, managed to capture the public's imagination as Apollo Moon landings did in the 20th century. Before this time, the general public had a erroneous perception of space exploration that is has somehow slowed down after Moon landings because the average person could not see results that he or she could fully comprehend. Mars and Europa missions had changed this.
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