What happens when your planetary rover punctures its wheel and the nearest service station is about 34 million miles away? That’s a real problem for NASA and their plans to send another rover to Mars in 2020. Curiosity, the rover currently exploring the red planet, has been hindered by punctures in its aluminum wheels, but a new type of tire could make travel much smoother for NASA’s future Mars missions.
Image Source: NASA
Updating For Durability And Flexibility For The Unfamiliar
Based on the Resilient Wheel design from the original 1970 Lunar Roving Vehicle, a new type of airless, woven tire has been developed to prevent punctures and reliably travel across unfamiliar planetary terrain. After years of development and challenges in achieving the right balance of durability and traction, NASA engineer, Colin Creager and materials scientist Santo Padula created a stoichiometric nickel-titanium alloy wheel that’s durable, flexible, and is able to spring back to shape even after its deformed.
Image Source: NASA
A Prototype With Promise
The wheel is comprised of a series of interlocking coils, similar to chainmail. While the original Resilient Wheel used steel mesh, the updated version provides better spring deflection and traction on rough terrain. Tests of the new prototype show promise, although NASA has not yet confirmed whether this specific design will be the one that’s used on its 2020 Mars rover. The chainmail wheels may however, play an integral role in the next crewed exploration vehicle, which would allow for speedier travel and more weight capacity than the Curiosity rover.
Have thoughts to offer on this development? Share them in the comments.
Electric Aircraft Makers Planning Affordable Shuttle Services
Aerospace engineers increasingly envision city skies buzzing quietly with electric air taxis. Known as eVTOL vehicles, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, the zero-emission aircraft can launch and land like helicopters, but without the noise and fossil fuel consumption. Investors foresee them operating from urban “vertiports” that connect with large airports or shuttle people between regional cities. Electric aircraft could cost less to use than helicopters and provide a viable transportation option to the public.
Speed And Range Capabilities
Archer, an eVTOL startup, expects to unveil its first aircraft in 2024. Designers say that it will have a range of about 60 miles and be capable of a maximum speed of 150 mph. A 1-hour car ride could become a 15 or 20-minute flight.
Heavy eVTOL Investment
Seeing potential in these small, short-range passenger vehicles, United Airlines has invested in the eVTOL startup Archer and ordered 200 aircraft for a cost of $1 billion.
Automaker money is on the table too for eVTOLs. The merger of the automakers Fiat Chrysler and PSA Peugeot formed the company Stellantis, which has also invested in Archer.
The companies Solvay and Vertical Aerospace have agreed to collaborate and build an eVTOL. Solvay brings advanced composite and adhesive materials to the venture, and Vertical Aerospace specializes in sustainable aviation technologies. They plan to present the world with a working prototype, the VA-1X aircraft, by September 2021.
Safety And Cost Advantages
Electric motors are less vulnerable to breakdowns compared to conventional engines. Additionally, electric motors weigh less, which means a single aircraft could have many engines. Such redundancy would guard against the threat of total engine failure during a flight.
Electrical charging costs less than engines that directly burn fossil fuels. On top of reducing this expense, aerospace scientists are working toward autonomous eVTOLs operated by sophisticated software, which would eliminate the cost of paying a pilot.
How far do you think electric aerospace technology could go? Could it eventually work for long-range passenger flights?
Our mission is to advance the benefits of sustainable air mobility. By creating the world’s leading air mobility network, we will help push the world towards a zero-emissions future.
- Build an aircraft to demonstrate the capabilities of electric VTOL
- Certify an aircraft that is just as safe as commercial airliners
- Launch commercial routes in cities & integrate autonomous systems for safety
Solvay is a science company whose technologies bring benefits to many aspects of daily life. Our purpose—we bond people, ideas and elements to reinvent progress—is a call to go beyond, to reinvent future forms of progress and create sustainable shared value for all through the power of science. In a world facing an ever-growing population and quest for resources, we aim to be the driving force triggering the next breakthroughs to enable humanity to advance while protecting the planet we all share.
We bond with customers and partners to address today and tomorrow’s megatrends. As a global leader in Materials, Chemicals and Solutions, Solvay brings advancements in planes, cars, batteries, smart and medical devices, water and air treatment, to solve critical industrial, social and environmental challenges. You can count on our innovative solutions to contribute to safer, cleaner and more sustainable future.
ABOUT Vertical Aerospace
Vertical Aerospace believes passionately in the power of electric flight to change the way the world travels because you shouldn’t have to sacrifice the planet you live on to get from A to B.
Founded by greentech entrepreneur Stephen Fitzpatrick in 2016, Vertical Aerospace has been disrupting the way aircraft are developed. Combining the rigour and discipline of aerospace with the pace and agility of F1 enables Vertical to develop cutting-edge electric aircraft.
VA-1X, Vertical’s flagship aircraft, is a piloted all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) which will carry four passengers for 100 miles at cruise speeds of 150mph. It is currently in development with flight testing taking place in 2021, followed by certification in 2024 with initial commercial services starting shortly afterwards.
Inflatable Habitat May Become A Home On Mars
The B330 is an inflatable module that may someday enable humans to live and work in orbit around the moon, and even on Mars. The endeavor belongs to Bigelow Aerospace, a company that is now working with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to get their inflatable lunar orbit station into space.
Image Source: Engadget
Compact, Lightweight, Suitable For Space
Bigelow Aerospace has had previous success launching inflatable units beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The company created BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), which was added to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016, extending the station’s living space after an easy set up. Other advantages that include durability and a compact, lightweight structure that lends itself well to transport aboard a cargo capsule.
Future Plans For Low Lunar Orbit
B330, the newest module, could be launched into low lunar orbit as soon as 2022 after hitching a ride on ULA’s Vulcan 562 rocket. This module is larger than BEAM, offering 330 cubic meters of volume—about a third of the size of the ISS. It’s spacious enough to accommodate a crew of six. Once B330 enters orbit around the moon, Bigelow Aerospace will outfit the habitat and ensure that it’s fully functional. It may then serve as a base for future Moon-based developments and as a training and research location for astronauts and long term space exploration prep.
Image Source: Engadget
Part Of A Return To The Moon
ULA and Bigelow Aerospace’s partnership on this endeavor—sometimes called “the lunar depot”—could be a springboard into more ambitious plans for returning to the Moon. While NASA has expressed interest in merging its own lunar exploration plans with Bigelow Aerospace and ULA, it’s not yet clear if, or how soon, funding for a return to the Moon will be available.
What are your thoughts on this concept? Tell us what you think in the comments.
Will Limited Plutonium Supply Keep Future Space Missions Grounded?
Plutonium-238, or Pu-238, plays an important part in supplying electrical power to spacecraft when solar sources are insufficient. If supplies of Pu-238 aren’t maintained, future space travel could be compromised and that is a concern, as NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are now facing new questions regarding a long term supply of this essential isotope.
Image Source: Wikimedia
Need For A Long Term Plan
Currently, the’s U.S.’s 35 kilogram stockpile of Pu-238 should be an ample supply for missions planned through the end of this decade, only one of which—the Mars 2020 rover—requires the use of radio thermoelectrical generator (RTG) that converts Pu-238 into electrical power. Beyond that, NASA and the DOE still need a long term plan to scale up the production of Pu-238. The prospect of future, manned space travel and other missions will depend on it.
Workforce And Production Obstacles
Major obstacles standing in the way of increased Pu-238 production are reported to include difficulties in hiring and training a qualified workforce and making improvements to, and scaling up, chemical processing methods. While the DOE has a goal to produce 1.5 kilograms of Pu-238 by 2025, the Government Accountability Office has said the department lacks a realistic long term plan to meet that goal.
Image Source: Space News
Improved Efficiency Workarounds?
Increased production of Pu-238 is not a new endeavor for NASA. The agency has had to restart production efforts as recently as 2011. Rather than simply work to maintain stock, NASA is also looking at ways to improve the efficiency of RTG so that reserves can be used for a greater number of future missions. There have been many previous attempts to develop a dynamic converter that would require significantly less Pu-238 to generate power but proposed concepts have not yet been proven viable.
What do you think of this issue that could impede space missions in the future, specifically manned missions? Comment and share your thoughts.
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