The future of space travel?

space-x-dragon-c2Space travel is a costly expenditure to undertake, and can become a failed mission very easily.  Case in point would be the attempted launch of the Falcon 9 in June 2015, in which the failure of a strut in the upper stage caused the entire setup to go up in flames.  This was the seventh failed attempt by SpaceX to perform a cargo run for NASA, per the agency’s Commercial Resupply program.  Now, however, there is a very promising ray of hope with the new, upgrade Falcon 9, which launched without issue on April 8, carrying the Dragon vehicle.

The remarkable part of this launch, though, was the successful landing of the rocket booster on a robotic drone ship by the name of “Of Course I Still Love You” (This ship, along with it’s twin “Just Read the Instructions”, are named in honor of sci-fi author Ian M. Banks).  The Falcon 9 was able to land on a football-sized area of space with no damage to itself or the drone, marking a great advancement in the field of space travel and exploration.  Despite earlier failed attempts, this one success is very cost-friendly, as it means that the booster can be reused again, instead of paying for a new one to be built from scratch.  The celebrated touchdown is not the only point of remark on this mission though.  Aboard the vehicle Dragon, which is set to dock at the space station on April 10, is an innovative new cargo that could potentially become one of the steps in commercializing space, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).  While initially similar in appearance to a parachute, the BEAM can expand to more than five times its compressed volume and form a suitable habitat for space living.

bigelow-expanding-space-moduleThe plan is to attach the BEAM, located in the trunk of the Dragon, to the Tranquility Node on the station, and become the first expandable habitat to be occupied in space.  The astronauts will pass in and out of the habitat during its two-year tenure to test the functionality of the BEAM, and hopefully report back good results.  BEAM is the brainchild of Bigelow Aerospace, owned by entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who bought the rights to NASA’s TransHab, a similar undertaking to BEAM in the 1990’s, which unfortunately never got farther than the planning stage. However, the most recent reincarnation has Bigelow in high hopes for the future of space occupation, hopes which includes having two station-size inflatables launch-ready by 2020, followed by plans for inflatable moon and perhaps Mars bases in the future.

Besides the BEAM, the Dragon also has an additional cost saving feature; the ability to return through Earth’s atmosphere without burning up, carrying important scientific samples from the One-Year Mission, among other things.

Needless to say, everyone involved is highly optimistic about the future, SpaceX in particular confirming they are aiming to increase the yearly launch total, with the end goal being launching every other week by the end of the year.  The next scheduled launch is near the end of April, with a following one in the beginning of May.

The BEAM is set to be inflated in May, about a month after docking, but will hopefully provide the results needed to take a step forward towards the future of space travel.  Until then, we can only wait for the expectantly successful conclusion of the experiment.

UPDATE:  The BEAM install and inflation took place on May 26 and hit a few snags.  Here is more about the latest on the BEAM from a Nasa Press Release

3 Areas of Innovation in Solar Energy Technology

Solar power is set to transform the way businesses and households get at least part of their energy requirements over the next few years. If the target set by the US Department of Energy can be reached for a completely installed solar power system costing less than $1 per watt, the cost of solar power to the consumer in the US would be only 6 cents per kWh making it a cheaper alternative than electricity generated by the new natural gas power plants.

While most of us think of solar panels arrayed on rooftops, incorporated into shingles or as great solar ‘farms’ of panels at ground level, Scientists and Researchers are working on some incredible new technology that could revolutionize the way we think about Solar power.

Solar Innovations for Buildings

  • Solar FabricSolar Fabric has the efficiency of conventional Solar panels but has the lightness and ease of use of fabric. The applications for this product in covering the vertical faces of buildings are obvious and could allow a building such as London’s US Embassy, to generate in excess of 100 mega watts of electricity!
  • Companies are working to develop transparent, glass Solar panels; Glass can be coated with a transparent film that is easy and inexpensive to apply to enable replacement of ordinary windows with those that generate electricity.
  • Solar film, printed in rolls and incorporated into roofing shingles is an inexpensive way of adding solar power production to a new building without the costs of adding solar panels to the surface of a roofing structure.

Innovations in Solar Panel Technology

  • Double Sided Solar Panels. Currently, solar panels generate electricity from one side only. A Chinese manufacturer, Sunergy is working on a double-sided solar panel, able to absorb light from both sides and expected to generate up to 20% more electricity by comparison with single sided panels.
  • hairy-solarHairy Solar! Solar panels using carbon Nanotube fabric, look ‘hairy’ – but are actually coated with carbon nanowires that can absorb more of the sun’s energy than conventional silicon cells and make the panels more efficient.
  • Capturing Energy from Infrared. Capturing power from light outside the visible spectrum has been achieved by adding Vanadium and Titanium to the semiconductors of solar panels. This has tremendous implications for harvesting even more electricity from solar panels by harnessing power from the infrared spectrum too.

Commercial Solar Innovations

  • Energy For Free. With solar cells becoming more efficient, even smaller and less expensive, more and more of the electronic devices we use will become solar powered. The ‘Solar Focus’ cover for Amazon’s Kindle can collect enough power to run the device for three days from just one hour of sunlight. This ‘energy-for-free’ option that can be utilized anywhere is set to become the norm for laptops, mobile phones and more in the future!
  • artificial-photosynthesisArtificial Photosynthesis. Another exciting innovation is the development of a new way of storing energy by utilizing a process very similar to the photosynthesis used by green plants. Called an ‘Artificial Leaf’ but actually not looking like a leaf at all, it uses solar energy to create hydrogen and oxygen by splitting water. The gases can be stored in fuel cells allowing households to have an on-demand source of power even where no access to the electricity grid is possible.

The innovations mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg for what is to come in clean, green Solar power Technology. Renewable energy for both Businesses and Homeowners is going to be something we all make use of in the future.


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