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Tag archives: space travel

Playing poker with robots on Mars

Photo of a rover prototype sitting on sand under red light inside a dome with a simulated starry sky

A prototype of the ExoMars rover trundles around inside the “space dome” at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

By Margaret Harris

How do you keep an astronaut alive, sane and (ideally) happy during a mission to Mars? The world’s space agencies would very much like to know the answer, but gathering data is tricky. The International Space Station (ISS) makes a good testbed for experiments on the physical effects of space travel, but psychologically speaking, ISS astronauts enjoy a huge advantage over their possible Mars-bound counterparts: if something goes badly wrong on the station, home is just a short Soyuz ride away. Martian astronauts, in contrast, will be on their own.

For this reason, space agencies have become interested in learning how people cope in extreme environments here on Earth, particularly in locations where rescue is not immediately possible. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) sent Beth Healey, a British medical doctor, to spend the winter of 2015 at Concordia Research Station, a remote base in the interior of Antarctica. During the continent’s nine-month-long winter, temperatures at Concordia can plunge as low as –80 °C, making it inaccessible even to aeroplanes, which cannot operate at temperatures below –50 °C. So once the last flight left in February 2015, Healey and the 12 other members of the overwintering team were stuck there until November.


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Putting a bouncy castle in space and other extraterrestrial adventures

A space station made from four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

Artist’s impression of a space station comprising four B330 inflatable pods, which are the white cylinders. (Courtesy: Bigelow Aerospace)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s never been a better time to be a space enthusiast, as more and more countries are unveiling space programmes and it seems like a new mission is launched or announced just about every week.

But if you are like me and find the constellation of mission names – the various acronyms, mythical beasts and dead scientists – overwhelming, then the space physicist Chris Arridge has put together “Five human spaceflight missions to look forward to in the next decade” for The Conversation.


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Riding a laser beam to Alpha Centauri, how the Sun pushes on the Earth and 22 kinds of space tape

Photograph of Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking

Stars in their eyes: Yuri Milner (left) and Stephen Hawking. (Courtesy: Bryan Bedder)

By Hamish Johnston

What to do if you have millions of dollars lying around and a keen interest in physics? The physicist turned Internet tycoon Yuri Milner has already spent some of his fortune rewarding leading scientists and funding research. His latest project is called “Starshot” and involves spending a cool $100m on sending a spaceship to Alpha Centuri – the closest star system to Earth at just 40 trillion kilometres away.


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The toll of a year in space, running a marathon on the ISS, skip-diving at CERN and more

By Tushna Commissariat and Michael Banks

“A year here is a really really long time,” says astronaut Scott Kelly in an interview (watch the video above) that he did on board the International Space Station (ISS) just a month before he returned to Earth in March this year. The retired astronaut is talking about the very real effects of spending a long period in space, specifically citing both the physical effects as well as the “psychological stress” involved. “During my time in orbit, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart. Every day I was exposed to 10 times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of developing a fatal cancer for the rest of my life. Not to mention the psychological stress, which is harder to quantify and is perhaps as damaging,” he says.

The comments were part of the announcement of his upcoming memoir, Endurance: My Year in Space and Our Journey to Mars, which will be published later this year. Despite the damming tone, Kelly is still a staunch supporter of manned spaceflight and missions such as those to Mars, he just has a much clearer view on the realities involved. Read more about his announcement over at the GeekWire website.


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How to cook the perfect steak, Bill Nye gets tangled about entanglement and the challenges of going to Mars

Steaks on a grill (CC BY 2.0 _BuBBy_)

The wrong way: where is the liquid nitrogen and duck fat? (CC BY 2.0 _BuBBy_)

By Hamish Johnston

How do you cook the perfect steak? Materials scientist Mark Miodownik of University College London has the answer. To cook his medium-rare steak (pink in the middle with a seared coating on the outside), Miodownik first seals the steak in a vacuum bag and places it in a warm water bath until it reaches 55 °C. He then dips it in liquid nitrogen for 30 s to chill the outer layer without freezing the middle. If that wasn’t unconventional enough, he then throws it into a deep-fat fryer containing duck fat. The result? “A lusciously seared steak, medium rare all the way through. And not a pan in sight!” says Miodownik. The BBC has put together a nice animation of the recipe: “What’s the weirdest way to cook a steak?”.


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Soft hair on black holes, making concrete on Mars and exploring the cosmos in 2016

By Hamish Johnston


This week’s Red Folder looks to the cosmos, starting with a spiffy new video from the European Space Agency. The slick presentation is a preview of some of the extra-terrestrial exploits that the agency has planned for 2016. This includes the landing of the Schiaparelli probe on the surface of Mars. This stationery lander will survey its Martian environs to find a suitable location to drop the ExoMars rover in 2018. The mission’s namesake is the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who mapped the surface of Mars and was the first to use the term canali to describe the straight lines that were thought to exist on the surface of the planet.

It’s possible that someday humans will colonize Mars and this will involve building dwellings and other structures on the Red Planet. In preparation, Lin Wan, Roman Wendner and Gianluca Cusatis at Northwestern University in the US have come up with a recipe for making concrete on Mars. The trio reckon that any successful colonization of the Red Planet will have to rely on local building materials because shipping stuff from Earth would be horrendously expensive.


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Zapping head lice and a job that is out of this world

Nit picker: the cold atmospheric pressure plasma lice killer (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

Nit picker: the cold plasma lice killer. (Courtesy: Fraunhofer IST)

By Hamish Johnston

Do your children have head lice again? Now you don’t have to comb their hair until your arm goes numb or cover their head with goop. Instead, you can zap them away using a plasma. I’m not suggesting that you put your child’s head into ionized gas that’s hotter than the Sun – it turns out that a “cold atmospheric pressure plasma” will do the trick.

That’s the claim of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films in Göttingen, Germany. The team has created the above prototype, which creates a plasma using a high-voltage generator that sends short pulses to the teeth of the comb. The pulses ionize air molecules surrounding the teeth, but they are so short that the resulting plasma does not heat up. The charged ions and electrons in the plasma make short work of killing lice and their eggs, but are harmless to humans – at least according to Wolfgang Viöl and colleagues, who will be unveiling their device later this month at the MEDICA trade fair in Düsseldorf.


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Pushing towards the human–Martian frontier

 Walter Cunningham circa 1968

Eye on the sky: NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham during the Apollo 7 mission, in October 1968. (Courtesy: NASA)

 By Tamela Maciel at the National Space Centre in Leicester

Last week, the planet Mars was under the international spotlight once more as NASA scientists announced that liquid water may still be flowing on the surface of the red planet. Also, the much-anticipated film adaptation of The Martian – a 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir a science-driven story of human survival on Mars, hit the box office.  Mars was also the hot topic at a recent event held at the National Space Centre in Leicester. The guest of honour was Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham and throughout the hour-long Q&A, he emphasized the need to push the “next frontier” and send humans to Mars.

Cunningham is not a man lacking in confidence or the experience of pushing boundaries. When asked if he ever felt the pressure of the astronaut selection or training process, he said “I thought I could fly anything, any time, anywhere. Was that true? I don’t know. But that’s how I felt.”


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Whisky in space, methane-capturing coffee, conference disasters and more


By Hamish Johnston

Fancy a wee dram while you are orbiting the Earth? With the growing interest in space tourism, travellers could soon be enjoying a sip or two of whisky in space. To make such tipples as enjoyable as possible, the Scotch whisky maker Ballantine’s has developed a special “space glass” that works in the free-fall conditions of Earth orbit. The firm is also developing a special blend of whisky to be enjoyed in space.

Created by Ballantine’s master whisky blender Sandy Hyslop and James Parr from the Open Space Agency, the new glass was filled with Scotch and tested in free-fall at the ZARM drop tower in Bremen, Germany. You can find out more about how one’s palate changes in space and the challenges facing the glass designers in the above video. And if you want to know if the glass passed the free-fall test, there is a second video called “Space Glass Project: the microgravity test”.


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Pluto fly-by: New Horizons sails past cold, distant world

Image of Pluto todate taken by the New Horizons spacecraft

Perfect view: the sharpest image of Pluto to date taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

After trundling through our solar system for more than 10 years, NASA’s New Horizons mission made its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto earlier today, at 12:49 BST. It was a mere 12,472 km from the planet’s surface – roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.

If you want to find out more about the New Horizons mission, read this recent news story by editor Hamish Johnston. Above is best close-up view of this cold, unexplored world that the spacecraft sent back before its closest approach (when it was still 766,000 km from the surface), revealing in clear detail many of the planet’s surface features, including the “heart” at the bottom.


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