Ride on a Shooting Star: Space Fuel

After the decimation suffered during World War II, mankind took a look at all the new technologies he had created to fight the war and turned his gaze towards the stars. From the late 1940’s this onward and upward reach has helped to fuel the engines of our ingenuity, but what has fueled those stellar ambassadors that now dot our solar system and beyond.

654 - Galaxies - Seamless Texture
Creative Commons License photo credit: Patrick Hoesly

To move from the surface of the earth to this new ocean a rocket must be moving about 7 miles per second. That takes a lot of energy. Many different propellants have been used. The very first rocket fuels were a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen. Alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and liquid hydrogen have also been used, in addition to solid fuels. They can provide thrust without the need for all the refrigeration and containment equipment that some of the liquid fuels, such as liquid hydrogen and oxygen, require.

Once the probe is beyond the reach of the atmosphere there is no way to change what’s on board.

The probe cannot drop by the local Radio Shack and pick up a fresh pair of AA batteries. While the probe is being built on Earth, the engineers must make sure that they provide a source of power that will give the probe the right amount of power.

Too little power and the scientific instrumentation won’t work; too much power could over heat the probe. On board chemical batteries can be used, but they take space that could be used for scientific instruments. Solar panels can be used, but only up to a certain distance from the sun. Beyond the orbit of Jupiter, probes need an internal power supply that will last for years.

They use the heat from radioactive decay of fissionable isotope.

Sputnik 1 in Orbit Sep 10-4-57
Creative Commons License photo credit: FlyingSinger

Early probes like Sputnik and Explorer 1 used chemical batteries to power their systems. In March of 1958 Vanguard 1, the 4th artificial satellite and the 1st powered by solar power, was launched. Probes with solar panels have more space on board for scientific instruments than probes that use only chemical batteries. Probes sent into the inner solar system (sun to Mars) are almost all powered using solar arrays.

Mariner 2, the first USA probe to Venus, suffered the loss of one of its solar arrays, but because it was closer to the sun, it was able to operate using only one solar array. No American manned space craft have made use of solar arrays yet (the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle may), the Russian Soyuz spacecraft have used them since 1967.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest man-made structure outside our atmosphere.

Larger than a football field (but smaller than a football pitch), this outpost orbits the earth every hour and a half. It is also powered completely by solar power. Past the atmosphere, solar power becomes more practical and more consistent (there is no night in space). Because of the orbital path of the ISS, it is eclipsed by the earth for 30 minutes out of every hour and a half. The station makes use of rechargeable batteries to make sure it is never without power.

From a Distance
Creative Commons License photo credit: Undertow851

As the probes go farther and farther away from the sun, the light that can reach them is less and less.

Until August of 2011, no probe to Jupiter had ever been powered just by solar panels. Juno, the latest probe to Jupiter, has the largest solar arrays given to a deep space probe and the first probe to Jupiter to use solar arrays.

Jupiter receives only 4% of the sunlight we enjoy on Earth. Advances in solar technology have now made it practical to use solar panels out 5 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the sun. All other deep space probes have used a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).

A RTG works by converting the heat from the decay of a radioactive fuel into electricity. American probes have been using Plutonium 238 (an isotope of Plutonium) since the late 1960’s. It has a half life of about 88 years. RTGs have powered all our interplanetary probes (the Voyagers and Pioneers and soon to be New Horizons). However, NASA has begun to run out of fuel for the RTGs and the creation of more is full of political and safety considerations.

There he goes, after an all day long work.
Creative Commons License photo credit: giumaiolini

The technology that we’ve made to go out to the ‘verse with will also help us here on the cool, green hills of earth. RGTs have been used, mainly by Russia, to provide power for off the grid light houses. Advances in solar panels for space are used down here on Terre Firma. With the reliably of solar power in space, there are even attempts to construct orbital solar collectors to beam down electricity. There will be from heaven to Earth more than is dreamt of.

Rice NASAversary!

Waxing Gibbous Moon 69 Percent 26Nov2009
Creative Commons License photo credit: mikebaird

Today’s post is from Dr. David Alexander, Rice Professor of Physics and Astronomy and creator of the Space Frontiers Lecture series. 

This has not been a good year for the space enthusiasts of Houston with the cancelation of the Constellation program, the end of an era with the last space shuttle flight, and the decision not to have one of the orbiters spend its retirement in Houston.

However, the people of Houston are known for rising to any challenge and the opportunity to enter a new phase of space exploration with the development of the multi-passenger crew vehicle, the continued operation of the International Space Station, and the push to maintain an American presence in space only emphasizes the importance of Houston and NASA to the nation.

Houston has been at the forefront of the human space adventure for five decades and this is a record worth celebrating.  Come join us in acknowledging the people whose dedication, excellence, and ingenuity put humans on the Moon (and brought them back again), created the “world’s greatest flying machine” in the Space Shuttle, and stimulated the imaginations of generations of would-be space explorers.

Welcome to a new and exciting year in the history of Rice University.

The 2011 incoming class is the 100th to walk through Rice’s historic Sallyport and the next year will see us work towards our centennial celebrations in October 2012.  Another major anniversary for Rice and the Greater Houston area is marked this September as we celebrate 50 years of the NASA Johnson Space Center and we are proud to note that Rice was there at the beginning.  September 14 marks the 50th anniversary of NASA Administrator James E. Webb’s decision, conveyed in person to President Kennedy, to build the NASA Manned Space Center in Houston (later to be named the Johnson Space Center) on land that was deeded to the government by Rice.  The public announcement of the location was made on September 19, 1961 and the manned space program made its home in Houston.

To celebrate a remarkable 50 years in human history, Rice and partners are hosting the Rice NASAversary, a week-long set of events from September 9 to 16.

To open the Rice NASAversary celebrations Rice will host Space City 2020, a space strategy workshop bringing together local academic, business, and government leaders to promote space technology and exploration. The culmination of the workshop will be a banquet with keynote speaker Dr. France Cordova, president of Purdue University and former NASA Chief Scientist.  The banquet is open to the public.

We celebrate our 50 years of connection to JSC on Wednesday, September 14, with the first in this year’s Space Frontiers Lecture Series

We are honored to host Mr. Norm Augustine, Chairman of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee.  Among many honors and awards, Mr. Augustine has been named one of the “Fifty Great Americans,” has received the National Medal of Technology from the President of the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Public Service Award and is five-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal from the U. S. Department of Defense.  The “Augustine Report”, the 155-page output from the United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, is a comprehensive and critical assessment of the US human space flight program and what is needed to maintain American leadership in space.

Mr. Augustine’s talk, entitled The Greatest Obstacle to Human Space Travel, will be held at the McMurtry auditorium in Duncan Hall at 7pm on September 14 (reception at 6:30pm).

Final Frontier: Free Lecture Series at Rice University

From Dr. David Alexander, Rice Professor of Physics and Astronomy and creator of the Space Frontiers Lecture series:

Yuri Gagarin

This month celebrates a number of notable anniversaries associated with space exploration.  Tuesday, April 12 marked the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight to become the first human to travel in space.  Coincidentally, that same day marked the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Space Shuttle.  Two historic landmarks in our quest to expand the boundaries of our home planet.  For those of you who are interested, April 12 also marked the 134th anniversary of the first use of a catcher’s face mask in baseball as well as being the date on which the American Civil War began.

In the 50 years since that first flight over 520 humans have ventured out of the Earth’s atmosphere, some for a few days, some for several months, some even went to the moon (and back!).  In fact, there has been an American stationed in space every day for over 10 years!  Needless to say conditions on the moon or on board the space shuttle or International Space Station are quite different from here on Earth with the most striking difference being the microgravity environment in which the astronauts or cosmonauts have to live.

Over the last five decades we have learned a lot about what being in space does to the human body from a wide array of phenomena such as bone loss, muscle atrophy, and radiation exposure.  How does space travel affect humans?  How do we mitigate these effects? How do we prepare for longer and longer space shifts? Experimental stations on the moon and Mars could mean hardy astronauts being away from home for years at a time.

On April 21st, in the final Space Frontiers Lecture of the 2010-2011 academic year, Rice University will host Dr. Bobby Alford, who will discuss the medical and biological aspects of space travel.

Dr. Alford is CEO and Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a Distinguished Service Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Professor of Otolaryngology.  Dr Alford has also served with distinction on the White House “Blue Ribbon” Advisory Committee for the Redesign of the Space Station, The Aerospace Medicine Advisory Committee (Chairman), The Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications Committee (Chairman), and the Life Sciences Advisory Committee.

International Space Station

Please bring your bones and muscles to the 1g atmosphere of the McMurtry auditorium on April 21!  See spacefrontiers.rice.edu for details.

The Challenger Learning Center Inspires!

Today’s guest blogger is Tess Casswell, a Mission Control Operator at the Johnson Space Center here in Houston. Today she writes about how challenger space centers such as the one we have here at HMNS and at the George Observatory started her on the path to working for NASA. Start your own journey by joining us this Saturday for Family Space Day at the George Observatory!

I first participated in a Challenger Learning Center event when I was 11 years old. At that time the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska was in its development phase and I was immersed in the somewhat stereotypical, “when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut!” phase. Though I was still young, my parents saw this opportunity for inspiration. My Mother contacted the board of directors for CLCA and told them about their newest fan. Before I knew it I was giving a speech at a CLCA fundraiser in front of my heroes: astronauts Pete Conrad and Joe Allen. The timing of the event was perfect: the very next day I got on a plane and headed for Space Camp in Titusville, FL.

My Challenger Center experience set me on a course that landed me as a Mission Control Operator here at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

During the CLCA fundraiser, Joe Allen told me that to become an astronaut I should become an engineer. I followed his advice and now I monitor the Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems (ETHOS) of the International Space Station. While my excitement about space flight began before CLCA was developed, my first CLC experience gave direction to my enthusiasm.

Because the Challenger Center played such a pivotal role in inspiring me to pursue engineering, I do my best to make time for Challenger Centers wherever I live. During middle and high school I volunteered often at CLCA. I participated in several missions throughout the years and helped out with numerous summer camps. Of course, every time an astronaut visited Alaska I was able, through CLCA, to meet with them and pick their brains about how they reached their goals! Later, as a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I returned as often as possible to the Challenger Center to participate in STEM outreach events.

Now that I live in Houston, I go often to the Challenger Learning Center at the George Observatory. The missions there are fun and dynamic, and the observatory environment makes the location (and the groups who go there) unique! I hope that by volunteering I am able to pay forward the inspiration that the Challenger Center gave me.

Recently the NASA Education web site did a feature on Tess.

Upcoming Family Space Day at the George Observatory!

Come out to the George Observatory this Saturday for out-of-this-world fun! The Observatory is hosting Family Space Day, and this weekend there will be more fun than ever before. We hope you’ll join us for the adventure.

First, fly to the Moon on a simulated space mission aboard the Space Station Observer at the Challenger Learning Center.  Train just like the astronauts – you’ll run science experiments and control the spacecraft during your simulated voyage and landing. You may even have to overcome obstacles like meteor strikes and computer failures in order to land safely!

After returning safely from your simulated flight you will have the opportunity to speak with real NASA engineers and flight controllers who will be hosting various activities. Operate a robotic arm, build and launch a water rocket, or enjoy the exhibits at the Observatory – there will be a ton of cool, educational things to look at and experience!

It doesn’t stop there, either. Purchase a ticket for the George’s 36-inch telescope and be amazed by up-close-and-personal views of the heavens. Whether you get the chance to look at a galaxy light-years away or something as close as our very own Moon, the view is well worth the $5 ticket. Outside of the big telescope you will also have the opportunity to view the stars through various telescopes provided by local volunteers.

In short, it’s going to be awesome… so don’t miss it!
See the Observatory’s website for all of the details.