From ending natural disasters, to flying to London in an hour, scientists are working on future technologies to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges. This post from The Canberra Times highlights the emerging areas of space technology that scientists are active in.
Imagine a world where severe storms, tornadoes and flash flooding are no longer a threat to human life. Or a time when flying from Australia to London takes less than an hour.
Picture a future where our understanding of the dawn of time and the fabric of the universe are so sophisticated that time travel becomes more than just theory.
All of these emerging technologies are being worked on right now in a lab in Palo Alto, California, where Lockheed Martin, the American aerospace and defence giant, is developing the science it claims could change the world.
Working alongside NASA, leading universities across the globe, and an array of commercial partners, the company is focused on four futuristic projects that could change the course of history: preserving human life; discovering more about the origins of the universe; flying at the speed of sound; and preventing the end of the world.
Follow the lightning
In May, tornadoes, flooding and other severe weather cost the US economy $US4.6 billion. During that single month – the wettest on record – there were 412 reports of tornadoes, according to AON’s Global Catastrophe Recap.
In China that same month, 81 people died and 100,000 homes were damaged and destroyed with the arrival of the Mei-Yu rains, notching up losses of $US4.6b.
The impact of severe weather on the planet cannot be overestimated. Nowhere is immune to its effects: in the wake of the 2011 floods in Thailand, where many IT component parts are manufactured, prices across the global IT industry soared and a worldwide hard-drive shortage followed.
The more accurate our predictions of events such as tornadoes can be, the more lives can be spared. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) could buy humans more time than we’ve ever had before.
“There’s a lot of activity that happens in the clouds, independent of a lightning strike on the ground, that gives data to predict severe weather,” says Scott Fouse, vice-president of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Centre. The GLM sensor will be incorporated into the US weather agency’s weather satellite GOES-R, and will launch next year.
“It’s an instrument in the same class as the Hubble telescope, using technology that is usually looking at the stars to look down at our own planet,” says Steven Jolly, who is chief engineer on the GOES-R satellite. “There is a steep rise in lightning activity 10 minutes before tornadic activity forms, which means we could save many more lives.”
The high-tech weather tracker, which takes pictures of Earth at a rate of 500 frames per second, could also help planes to navigate around storm systems and give ample warning when electrical grids on the ground are under threat. Variants on the original GLM are being developed to deploy around the world.
It’s not just the Earth’s weather that poses a threat to our systems and aviation. Coronal mass ejections – violent bursts of gas and magnetic particles from the sun – can extend billions of miles into space, reaching Earth within one to three days. Smaller ejections can shut down satellites and global communications systems, and interrupt airline control and electric power grids. The larger the ejection, the more dangerous the effects. “They can happen any time,” says Jolly. “Depending on where the ejection comes out of the sun and where is facing it when it hits, certain parts of the world could lose electricity for up to five months.”
Insurance companies pay out $10 billion ($22 billion) a year for electronic damage related to these events. A new Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI), which will also be loaded onto the GOES-R, will track these geomagnetic episodes and help minimise the disruption and damage by giving fair warning.
Another instrument, the geoCARB, which is being developed in partnership with the University of Oklahoma, will also measure carbon levels in Earth’s atmosphere to help us accurately model the element’s effect on life on Earth in years to come.
Time travel and a postcard from the dawn of time
Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona are building a super-sensitive Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) with the hope of being able to take pictures of the dawn of time.
NIRCam will be launched into space aboard the James Webb Space Telescope in October, 2018 from French Guiana on a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket. It works by detecting light using coronagraphs, instruments that allow astronomers to take pictures of very faint objects around a central bright object. It will be able to create detailed images of the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation.
NIRCam’s coronagraphs work in a similar way to shielding the sun from your eyes with an upraised hand, which helps to focus on the view.
“Through spectrometers [special filters] we’ll be able to understand a lot about the incoming light, such as the chemical compositions at the time, and see the gaseous clouds beginning to form,” says Jolly. ” That will inform the science of the beginnings of the universe.”
NIRCam will help us understand dark matter and dark energy, which are currently hidden from our telescopes – although we know it’s there – and help us to understand how space and time work on a fundamental level.
“We believe time works in one direction but the fabric of space does not appear to be the way we think it is,” says Jolly. “There are dimples in space caused by large objects like the sun, for example. Could this lead to discoveries around time travel? I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
“The old Star Trek series had so many of these technologies and my dad, who is a physicist, laughed at all of them. Now they’re becoming reality.”
The data gathered by NIRCam could have a profound impact on the world, not only for cosmologists, who study of the creation of the universe – but on mankind’s religions and belief systems.
“By understanding the origins of the universe, we will be able to explain all kinds of phenomena that we do not currently understand,” says Jolly.
Travel five times faster than the speed of sound
The idea of hypersonic space travel is not a new one. The term has been around since the ’70s and refers to speed above Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound.
There are a number of different commercial ventures hoping to crack hypersonic – one German project for a Hypersonic SpaceLiner that could travel from Australia to Europe in 90 minutes will be ready by 2030, according to its makers. Lockheed Martin is now developing Mach 20 – more than 15,000 miles per hour – and Mach 30 technologies. That could take a flight from Australia to Britain down to less than an hour.
Attempts to reach Mach 20 consistently have been thwarted by a lack of robust materials that can withstand the temperatures generated at these speeds, which is why the next generation of hypersonic materials are as unusual as they are deeply complex. “We have a material that cools itself by shedding electrons like the human body cools itself by sweating,” says Fouse.
Lockheed Martin is working alongside Imperial College London, which owns a hypersonic gun tunnel, which is used to test these materials. “They’re at the cutting edge,” says Fouse.
Hypersonic flight has applications beyond consumer travel. In defence, it could give governments the upper hand over enemies and, in the event of a humanitarian crisis, it could eventually allow aid to reach victims much faster although the cost of travel will be very high in the early years.
Hypersonic materials will be used alongside other innovations, such as carbon nanotubes, to create these machines of the future. These tiny tubes – 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – are making leaps inbattery innovation and nanotechnology.
“From the way we design spacecraft to aircraft to cars and wearables [tiny computers in our clothing or jewellery], carbon nanotubes are changing the paradigm,” says Jolly. “Now, we have sensors with their own power source that can turn themselves on and off, without any wires. This can make extremely small and sophisticated satellites – about one thousandth of the size they are now – but think what a car might look like in the future. At the moment, who knows?”
In 2013, a 15-metre wide asteroid hit Chelyabinsk, in Russia, injuring about 2000 people. It was the first time in recent history that an asteroid of any significant size had made it through the Earth’s atmosphere to cause devastation on the ground.
Space rocks hit our planet all the time but only the larger ones are problematic; to pose a global threat, an asteroid needs to be more than 400 metres wide, according to NASA, but these only strike earth once every 1000 centuries.
Nestled in our solar system, the Earth is protected by giant planets, which pull dangerous objects away from us. The last serious Earth impact occurred in 1908, when, again a meteor hit Russia, triggering an earthquake that measured a five on the Richter scale. The crash site was so remote that only one man died. Had it hit just four hours and 47 minutes later, it would have taken out St Petersburg, which had a population of just over one million.
It is now widely accepted that 66 million years ago, during the Cretacean period, dinosaurs roamed the Earth until an asteroid or comet approximately 10 kilometres wide hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, an area now known as the Chicxulub crater. The power of the impact was equivalent to more than a billion Hiroshima bombs and set off a chemical reaction that boiled the earth, wiping out all life except plants.
Scientists at NASA and Lockheed Martin are now trying to work out a way to prevent this kind of cataclysmic event. NASA-funded projects have been working to catalogue 90pc of so-called “near-earth objects” since 1998, but a mission is set to launch in September 2016 that will change man’s relationship with asteroids.
“If a big enough object were to encounter Earth, that would be a really bad day,” says Jolly. “We need to work out how to approach these near-Earth objects and what we can do to change the orbits of these things.”
OSIRIS-REx is a manned mission to the asteroid Bennu, one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids; it has a relatively high probability of slamming into Earth in the late 22nd century. NASA is currently monitoring more than 1400 asteroids that could potentially cause significant damage.
“OSIRIS-REx will go to a near-earth object, take a sample and bring it home,” explains Jolly. “We’re not blowing anything up but this is the beginning. We are learning how to impact the path of an asteroid.”
But preserving the planet involves more than asteroid defence.
“One of the biggest mysteries is what happened to water on Mars,” says Fouse, “We built MAVEN for NASA to orbit Mars and dip in and take samples to understand what happened to the atmosphere.
“That data may help us to better understand our own complex environment. Is this what’s in store for our own planet far into the future?”