Category: Technology

Any landing you can walk away from…


… is a good landing, as the adage goes.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser prototype spacecraft flew perfectly during its first free-flight test this past week, but landing was a bit bumpy. The winged craft, resembling a miniature space shuttle, is being built to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS and other near-Earth orbit destinations. Without the long-term, heavy cargo capabilities of the shuttle, Dream Chaser, should be cheaper and more efficient to operate, although it shares the shuttle’s basic approach of carrying up to seven passengers from a rocket-based launch into orbit followed by gliding to a runway landing. The craft’s first free-flight test on Saturday went smoothly until the left landing gear failed to fully deploy, sending the Dream Chaser skidding off the runway. Sierra Nevada says the damage is repairable and won’t cause any significant delay. Dream Chaser’s first spaceflight (unmanned) is projected to occur in 2016, with the first manned orbital flight occurring the year after.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Orion capsule was powered-up for the first time. Orion’s first test launch is scheduled for late 2014.

SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule is following a similar schedule, with test launches planned for 2015.

Faster than Light, Out of the Blue

Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier, from The Right Stuff (1983)

Technological optimists like to compare the sound barrier, broken by Chuck Yeager in 1947, to the speed of light, which achieved a cosmic significance with Einstein’s theories. Just as the former was said to be impassable, the optimists hope that, with enough grit and technological determination, we’ll find a way around the latter as well. Popular Science posts an article today about current research into ways to travel faster than light. While readers ought to keep in mind today’s date, the article’s topics aren’t entirely jokes, even if they are quite fantastical—that is, though the ideas aren’t anywhere near practical use, they are at least related to some real principles of physics.

That said, the sound barrier and the “light speed barrier” are two fundamentally different things. The sound barrier is created by the opposition of forces created when you try to push one object (an airplane) through a resistant medium (the air). At a certain point, the force of the air pushing back against the forward-moving plane becomes so great that two major problems present themselves: the plane can fall apart due to the stresses placed upon it, and the plane can become uncontrollable. Breaking this barrier involves building a plane that can reach the necessary speeds, handle the stresses placed upon it, and remain under the pilot’s control. Historically, this took a series of ever-improving designs combined with trial and error, sometimes fatal. The engineers who built the planes were good at making things that go fast; the pilots were brave while taking their machines to their physical limits.

The same approach can’t be used to get around the speed of light, however, because the speed limit of light is of a fundamentally different nature than the speed of sound. The speed of sound is basically a local phenomenon. It will be different in different media, and even for different objects moving through a given medium. You can, however, get past it with enough effort. The speed of light, however, is not the same sort of “barrier” created by local forces and circumstances acting on a spacecraft as it travels faster. Instead, the speed of light is built into the very nature of motion through space itself. Read more →

New Film on Transhumanism

Rebecca Taylor (Mary Meets Dolly) points to a new film coming out about transhumanism, and she rightly points out the aptness of the subtitle: Will we survive our technology? For that is exactly the problem with transhumanism: that it purports that such a thing as “transcending” humanity by merely material means is possible. But with a supernatural destiny and an intrinsic capax Dei, man is already the apex of material nature–any transcending he can do will not be accomplished by material, technological means (though such means are fine for stewarding and improving his condition.) The transhumanist imagines he can fundamentally alter the human essence through technology, but such an attempt can only mean becoming less, not more, than human. See Rebecca’s post for more.

Moon Rock Replicators

Here is the scenario: A future team of explorerers on the Moon needs parts to keep their lunar base in repair. One option is to bring spares with them, but of course everything you haul from the Earth to the Moon brings with it a cost in fuel, storage space, and ultimately opportunity. Another option is to manufacture replacements on site, just as explorers moving into new regions on Earth long ago learned to survive off the land. To that end, researchers at Washington State University have provided a proof-of-concept demonstration of the construction of artificial objects by means of 3d-printing, using simulated moon rocks as a source material.

The university reports:

To test the idea, NASA researchers provided Bandyopadhyay and Bose with 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, an imitation moon rock that is used for research purposes.The WSU researchers were concerned about how the moon rock material – which is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides – would melt. But they found it behaved similarly to silica, and they built a few simple shapes.
The researchers are the first to demonstrate the ability to fabricate parts using the moon-like material. They sent their pieces to NASA.

“It doesn’t look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,’’ says Bandyopadhyay.


Rebecca Taylor on Transhumanism

Rebecca Taylor writes at National Catholic Register:

Transhumanism: Taking the Place of Our Creator

So why should Catholics care about transhumanism? What is so wrong with becoming a “post-human” anyway? Catholics need to care because transhumanism is an insidious philosophy that rejects the nature of humanity and our natural limitations. By rejecting the nature of man, transhumanism also rejects the inherent dignity of every human being in the process.

Read here.

The Transparent Earth

If you want to send an electronic signal to the other side of the planet, you have a problem: the Earth itself is in the way. The traditional solution is to send your signal the long way around, routing it through either satellites or terrestrial cables, towers, etc. until it reaches the other side. Now scientists are investigating another option: make the Earth transparent. Actually,  they aren’t changing the Earth, but are rather investigating the use of a medium to which the Earth is transparent, namely neutrinos. Tiny and virtually massless, neutrinos can speed through seemingly solid matter, even as thick as the diameter of the Earth, without encountering much resistance along the way. Instead of colliding with and being absorbed or deflected by the atoms of the Earth, neutrinos pass through them as if they weren’t even there. In the future, such properties may make it possible to send neutrino-encoded signals straight through the ground to the other side of the planet. NewScientist has more.

Ceci n’est pas une galaxie

Space Entrepreneuers Announce Plane-Launched Orbital Project

The planners behind the groundbreaking SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo projects, which were the first successful plane-based private craft to achieve suborbital spaceflight, are now announcing plans for a private, plane-launched rocket capable of reaching orbit around the Earth. The project, called Stratolaunch, envisions a massive twin-fuselage launch craft powered by six jumbo-jet engines. The rocket itself will be mounted between the fuselages, and will be flown to launch altitude before being dropped and igniting its engines for the final ascent to orbit. The launch plane will then return to a runway landing for reuse. The hope is to offer private, cheap spaceflight on an efficient reusable basis. The team claims that the Stratolaunch system will offer the capability of launch up to 1300 miles from the takeoff point, and the capability of reaching orbit in any launch direction — something current ground-based launch sites cannot do. Read more here from SpaceflightNow.


Yves Rossy with a fighter escort.

Tractor Beams and Space-Tearing Lasers

Two news items of interest in the world of physics:

NASA Considers Tractor Beams for Future Rovers

NASA is exploring ways to use tractor beams in future robotic probe missions. The agency has recently awarded a team of engineers $100,000 to study three experimental techniques for trapping small particles with lasers.

Spacecraft flying by comets and asteroids or rovers landing on Mars could use the methods to continuously sample their target.

(from Wired)


World’s most powerful laser to tear apart the vacuum of space

Due to follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider, the latest “big science” experiment being proposed by physicists will see the world’s most powerful laser being constructed.

Capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it would be equivalent to the power received by the Earth from the sun focused onto a speck smaller than a tip of a pin, scientists claim it could allow them boil the very fabric of space – the vacuum.

Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist.

The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would produce a laser so intense that scientists say it would allow them to reveal these particles for the first time by pulling this vacuum “fabric” apart.

They also believe it could even allow them to prove whether extra-dimensions exist.

(from The Telegraph)