Promising new spaceship drive

NASA has recently tested a new type of drive that may be used in future spaceships. The Cannae Drive is unique in that it doesn’t use propellant. Since propellant (fuel) has mass, normal drives need to move the spacecraft and the propellant for future thrust. This leads to needing lots of mass, frequently as much as the payload.

But the Cannae Drive is different. It uses microwaves instead of propellant. By bouncing microwaves in a specially shaped container, they have managed to create a difference in radiation pressure, generating between 30-50 micronewtons. This is a very small amount of thrust. The only energy that is needed is electricity, which is readily available through solar panels.

This technology is in its infancy, and is a long way from being used in spacecraft.

I love this kind of thing because it appears to violate the Law of Conservation of Momentum (simpler). This means that we’re at the edge where our understanding of the way the universe works may be wrong. Our scientific understanding may have to change to account for this effect.

It’s official: Voyager 1 is in interstellar space

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, is now traveling through interstellar space. But, oddly enough, is still in our solar system. Voyager 1 has left the heliosphere. This means that it has left the sun’s protective bubble, and is now moving through the thicker interstellar plasma. While far away from the orbits of the planets (and Pluto), it hasn’t reached the hypothetical Oort cloud, which would be the actual end of the solar system.

Apollo 1 anniversary

Apollo_1_patchApollo_1_Prime_Crew 47 years ago today, Apollo 1 died, along with her crew: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. It was to be the first launch of the Apollo Program, and the 3 crew members were doing a test on the pad. The mission was a low Earth orbital test, the first with the complex Apollo command module.

On January 27th, 1967, the crew were doing a “plugs out” test, where they tested that the command module would work without being connected to umbilicals and cables. The cabin interior was pressurized with a pure oxygen atmosphere, at a pressure slightly higher than outside air pressure. There was a voltage spike at 6:30 am, and shortly afterwards Chaffee exclaimed “Hey!”, and “I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”. 17 seconds later, the transmission ceased as the command module ruptured.

There were multiple places where there could have been an ignition source, but later tests showed that the astronauts in nylon pressure suits, reclining on nylon flight seats and moving around normally could have generated enough electrical charge that touching the metal control panels would cause a spark.

The pressurized, pure oxygen atmosphere also contributed to the fire. Many materials become highly flammable in these circumstances. There were about 70 pounds of nonmetallic flammable material in the cockpit.

Further, the hatch was designed to not open if the cabin was at higher than atmospheric pressure. So the crew was unable to open the hatch without venting the extra pressure first, and the vent controls were near where the fire started.

While the mission never happened, and at the time the spacecraft was called AS-204, the designation was changed to Apollo 1: first manned Apollo Saturn flight – failed on ground test.

Opportunity at 10 years (and still going)

The Mars rover Opportunity is starting its 10th year on Mars today. This is remarkable, because it’s mission was supposed to be 90 days long. That’s Mars days, or sols, which translates into 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 some seconds. Opportunity is still going. That’s 39.4704637 times longer than originally planned, and designed for; I wish my car was built this way.

Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, was also well over warranty when it became stuck in soft soil. At that point its mission changed from mobile laboratory to stationary observer. It sent its last transmission on 22 March 2010. We salute you Spirit.

These rovers (including Pathfinder/Sojourner and Curiosity) have made great scientific observations, including that Mars once had liquid water on the surface.