Special Relativity. It’s been the bane of space explorers, futurists and science fiction authors since Albert Einstein first proposed it in 1905. For those of us who dream of humans one-day becoming an interstellar species, this scientific fact is like a wet blanket. Luckily, there are a few theoretical concepts that have been proposed that indicate that Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel might still be possible someday.
The idea of one day traveling to another star system and seeing what is there has been the fevered dream of people long before the first rockets and astronauts were sent to space. But despite all the progress we have made since the beginning of the Space Age, interstellar travel remains just that – a fevered dream. While theoretical concepts have been proposed, the issues of cost, travel time and fuel remain highly problematic.
In its pursuit of missions that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, NASA has been exploring a number of next-generation propulsion concepts. Whereas existing concepts have their advantages – chemical rockets have high energy density and ion engines are very fuel-efficient – our hopes for the future hinge on us finding alternatives that combine efficiency and power.
NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, is an X-ray telescope launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early June 2017. Installed on the International Space Station, by mid-July it will commence its scientific work – to study the exotic astrophysical objects known as neutron stars and examine whether they could be used as deep-space navigation beacons for future generations of spacecraft.
Forty years ago, Canadian physicist Bill Unruh made a surprising prediction regarding quantum field theory. Known as the Unruh effect, his theory predicted that an accelerating observer would be bathed in blackbody radiation, whereas an inertial observer would be exposed to none. What better way to mark the 40th anniversary of this theory than to consider how it could affect human beings attempting relativistic space travel?
As NASA continues preparing for the Journey to Mars, the technology now in development is expanding beyond the spacecraft and propulsion systems needed to get there. NASA scientists and engineers also are developing systems to harness abundant resources available in the solar system to support these pioneering missions.
In the film The Martian, Matt Damon’s character survives being stranded on another planet by growing potatoes in his own faeces. And if we want to visit or maybe even settle on other planets for real, we’ll have to find a way to grow plants outside the safe environment of the Earth. On long space voyages in particular, plants will provide a vital source of food and oxygen.
On cold, dark days it is tempting to imagine shutting yourself away until the warmer weather returns. Many animals do just that by entering a state known as torpor, which reduces their bodily functions to a minimum and uses fat stores in their body for energy. Could humans ever hibernate in the same way?
Would you like to spend a year gazing down from the International Space Station? Before you pack your bag, you should think about what actually might happen to you in microgravity, away from the protection of the atmosphere and magnetosphere. Thanks to two astronauts who’ve recently landed back on Earth, we’ll now be able to find out.