For future missions, deep-space navigation expert Joseph Guinn wants to design an autonomous system that would collect images of targets and nearby objects and use their relative location to triangulate a spaceship’s coordinates—no ground control required. “You put a GPS receiver on your car and problem solved.” He calls it a deep-space positioning system—DPS for short.problem: radiation Outside the safe cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, subatomic particles zip around at close to the speed of light. Aside from cancer, it can also cause cataracts and possibly Alzheimer’s.It’s a vacuum, after all; nothing to slow you down. Chemical propellants are great for an initial push, but your precious kerosene will burn up in a matter of minutes. Here’s a look at what rocket scientists now have, or are working on, or wish they had. The US Space Surveillance Network has eyes on 17,000 objects—each at least the size of a softball—hurtling around Earth at speeds of more than 17,500 mph; if you count pieces under 10 centimeters, it’s closer to 500,000 objects.
Essential to the future of space travel: world peace.
problem: navigation The Deep Space Network, a collection of antenna arrays in California, Australia, and Spain, is the only navigation tool for space.
But as more and more missions take flight, the network is getting congested. So in the near term, NASA is working to lighten the load.
Atomic clocks on the crafts themselves will cut transmission time in half, allowing distance calculations with a single downlink.
Everything from student-project satellites to the New Horizons probe meandering through the Kuiper Belt depends on it to stay oriented.
An ultraprecise atomic clock on Earth times how long it takes for a signal to get from the network to a spacecraft and back, and navigators use that to determine the craft’s position.
I could tell you that we shouldn’t keep all our eggs in this increasingly fragile basket—one good meteor strike and we all join the non-avian dinosaurs. I could tell you that it might be good for us to unite behind a project that doesn’t involve killing one another, that does involve understanding our home planet and the ways we survive on it and what things are crucial to our continuing to survive on it.
I could tell you that moving farther out into the solar system might be a good plan, if humanity is lucky enough to survive the next 5.5 billion years and the sun expands enough to fry the Earth.
It works at –263 degrees Celsius, which is balmy for superconductors, but it helps that space is already so damn cold.
problem: food and water Lettuce got to be a hero last August.