Category Archives: Space Travel

The Rush to Mars

Even at the start of NASA’s space program in 1958, the target of our efforts was not the moon but Mars. The head of NASA, Werner von Braun was obsessed with Mars, and his Mars Project book published in 1948, was the blueprint for how to do this, which he revised in 1969. He saw the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle as the means to this end.

A major effort running in parallel with Kennedy’s moon program was the development of nuclear rocket technology. This would be the means for getting to Mars in the proposed expedition launch in November, 1981. The program was abandoned in 1972 when President Nixon unceremoniously canceled the Apollo Program and stopped the production of Saturn Vs. That immediately put the kibosh on any nuclear propulsion efforts because the required fission reactors were far too heavy to be lifted into space by any other means. He resigned from NASA once he realized that his dream would never be realized, and died five years later.

Flash forward to 2004 when President George Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative to include a manned trip to Mars by the 2030s. There would be manned trips to the moon by 2015 to test out technologies relevant to the Mars trip and to learn how to live there for extended periods of time.

By 2008, the lunar portion of this effort was canceled, however the development of the Orion capsule and what is now called the Space Launch System were the legacies of this program still in place and expected to be operational by ca 2019. The rest of the Initiative is now called NASA’s Journey to Mars, and lays out a detailed plan for astronauts learning how to work farther and farther from Earth in self-sustaining habitats, leading to a visit to Mars in the 2030s. Meanwhile, the International Space Station has been greatly extended in life to the mid-2020s so we can finally get a handle on how to live and work in space and solve the many medical issues that still plague this environment.

However, NASA’s systematic approach is not the only one in progress today.

The entire foundation of Elon Musk’s Space-X company is to build and make commercially profitable successively larger launch vehicles leading to the Interplanetary Transport System which will bring 100 colonists at a time to the surface of Mars in about 80 days starting around 2026. Space-X is even partnering with NASA for a sample return mission called Red Dragon in ca 2018. Meanwhile, a competing program called Mars One (see picture above) proposes a crew of four people to land in 2032 with additional crew delivered every two years. . This will be a one-way do-or-die colony, and loss of life is expected. Mars One consists of two entities: the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation, and the for-profit company Mars One Ventures with CEO Bas Lansdorp at the corporate helm.

But wait a minute, what about all the non-tech issues like astronaut health and generating sustainable food supplies? Astronauts have been living in the International Space Station for decades in shifts, and many issues have been identified that we would be hard pressed to solve in only ten more years. NASA’s go-slow approach may be the only one consistent with not sending astronauts to a premature death on mars, with all the political and social ramifications that implies.

The dilemma is that slow trips to Mars, like the 240-day trips advocated by NASA’s plan exacerbate health effects from prolonged weightlessness including bone loss, failing eyesight, muscle atrophy and immune system weakening. These effects are almost eliminated by much shorter trips such as the 80-day target by Space-X. In fact, the entire $100 billion International Space Station raison de etra is to study long term space effects during these long transits. This existential reason for ISS would have been eliminated had a similar investment been made in ion or nuclear propulsion systems that reduced the travel time to a month or less!

Ironically, Werner von Braun knew about this as long ago as 1969, but his insights were dismissed for political reasons that led directly to our confinement to low Earth orbit for the next 50 years!

Check back here on Sunday, January 22 for the next installment!

Space Travel via Ions

For 60 years, NASA has used chemical rockets to send its astronauts into space, and to get its spacecraft from planet to planet. The huge million-pound thrusts sustained for only a few minutes were enough to do the job, mainly to break the tyranny of Earth’s gravity and get tons of payload into space. This also means that Mars is over 200 days away from Earth and Pluto is nearly 10 years. The problem: rockets use propellant (called reaction mass) which can only be ejected at speeds of a few kilometers per second. To make interplanetary travel a lot zippier, and to reduce its harmful effects on passenger health, we have to use rocket engines that eject mass at far-higher speeds.

In the 1960s when I was but a wee lad, it was the hey-day of chemical rockets leading up to the massive Saturn V, but I also knew about other technologies being investigated like nuclear rockets and ion engines. Both were the stuff of science fiction, and in fact I read science fiction stories that were based upon these futuristic technologies. But I bided my time and dreamed that in a few decades after Apollo, we would be traveling to the asteroid belt and beyond on day trips with these exotic rocket engines pushing us along.

Well…I am not writing this blog from a passenger ship orbiting Saturn, but the modern-day reality 50 years later is still pretty exciting. Nuclear rockets have been tested and found workable but too risky and heavy to launch.  Ion engines, however, have definitely come into their own!

Most geosynchronous satellites use small ‘stationkeeping’ ion thrusters to keep them in their proper orbit slots, and NASA has sent several spacecraft like Deep Space-1, Dawn powered by ion engines to rendezvous with asteroids. Japan’s Hayabusha spacecraft also used ion engines as did ESA’s Beppi-Colombo and the LISA Pathfinder. These engines eject charged, xenon atoms ( ions) to speeds as high as 200,000 mph (90 km/sec), but the thrust is so low it takes a long time for spacecraft to build up to kilometer/sec speeds. The Dawn spacecraft, for example, took 2000 days to get to 10 km/sec although it only used a few hundred pounds of xenon!

But on the drawing boards even more powerful engines are being developed. Although chemical rockets can produce millions of pounds of thrust for a few minutes at a time, ion engines produce thrusts measured in ounces for thousands of days at a time. In space, a little goes a long way. Let’s do the math!

The Deep Space I engines use 2,300 watts of electrical energy, and produced F= 92 milliNewtons of thrust, which is only 1/3 of an ounce! The spacecraft has a mass of m= 486 kg, so from Newton’s famous ‘F=ma’  we get an acceleration of a= 0.2 millimeters/sec/sec. It takes about 60 days to get to 1 kilometer/sec speeds. The Dawn mission, launched in 2007 has now visited asteroid Vesta (2011) and dwarf planet Ceres (2015) using a 10 kilowatt ion engine system with 937 pounds of xenon, and achieved a record-breaking speed change of 10 kilometers/sec, some 2.5 times greater than the Deep Space-1 spacecraft.

The thing that limits the thrust of the xenon-based ion engines is the electrical energy available. Currently, kilowatt engines are the rage because spacecraft can only use small solar panels to generate the electricity. But NASA is not standing still on this.


The NEXIS ion engine was developed by NASA’s  Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and this photograph was taken when the engine’s power consumption was 27 kW, with a thrust of 0.5 Newtons (about 2 ounces).

An extensive research study on the design of megawatt ion engines by the late David Fearn was presented at the Space Power Symposium of the 56th International Astronautical Congress in 2005. The conclusion was that these megawatt ion engines pose no particular design challenges and can achieve exhaust speeds that exceed 10 km/second. Among the largest ion engines that have actually been tested so far is a 5 megawatt engine developed in 1984 by the Culham Laboratory. With a beam energy of 80 kV, the exhaust speed is a whopping  4000 km/second, and the thrust was 2.4 Newtons (0.5 pounds).

All we have to do is come up with efficient means of generating megawatts of power to get at truly enormous exhaust speeds. Currently the only ideas are high-efficiency solar panels and small fission reactors. If you use a small nuclear reactor that delivers 1 gigawatt of electricity, you can get thrusts as high as 500 Newtons (100 pounds). What this means is that a 1 ton spacecraft would accelerate at 0.5 meters/sec/sec and reach Mars in about a week!  Meanwhile, NASA plans to use some type of 200 kilowatt, ion engine design with solar panels to transport cargo and humans to Mars in the 2030s. Test runs will also be carried out with the Asteroid Redirect Mission ca 2021 also using a smaller 50 kilowatt solar-electric design.

So we are literally at the cusp of seeing a whole new technology for interplanetary travel being deployed. If you want to read more about the future of interplanetary travel, have a look at my book ‘Interplanetary Travel: An astronomer’s guide’, which covers destinations, exploration and propulsion technology, available at

Stay tuned!

Check back here on Wednesday, January 11 for the next installment!

Image credits:

Ion engine schematic

Star Destroyer

To Pluto in 30 days!

OK…While everyone else is worrying how to get to Mars, let’s take a really big step and figure out how to get to Pluto….in a month!

The biggest challenge for humans is surviving the long-term rigours of space hazards, but all that is nearly eliminated if we keep our travel times down to a few weeks.

Historically, NASA spacecraft such as the Pioneer, Voyager and New Horizons missions have taken many years to get as far away from Earth as Pluto. The New Horizons mission was the fastest and most direct of these. Its Atlas V launch vehicle gave it an initial speed of 58,000 km/hr. With a brief gravity assist by Jupiter, its speed was boosted to 72,000 km/hour, and the 1000-pound spacecraft made it to Pluto in 9.5 years. We will have to do a LOT better than that if we want to get there in 1 month!

The arithmetic of the journey is quite simple: Good old speed = distance / time. But if we gain a huge speed to make the trip, we have to lose this speed to arrive at Pluto and enter orbit. The best strategy is to accelerate for the first half, then turn the spacecraft around and decelerate for the second half of the trip. The closest distance of Pluto to Earth is about 4.2 billion kilometers (2.7 billion miles). That means that for 15 days and 2.1 billion kilometers, you are traveling at an average speed of 5.8 million kilometers per hour!

Astronomers like to use kilometers/second as a speed unit, so this becomes about 1,600 km/sec. By comparison, the New Horizons speed was 20 km/sec. Other fast things in our solar system include the orbit speed of Mercury around the sun (57 km/s), the average solar wind speed (400 km/s) and a solar coronal mass ejection event (3,000 km/s).

If our spacecraft was generating a constant thrust by running its engines all the time, it would be creating a uniform acceleration from minute to minute. We can calculate how much this is using the simple formula distance = ½ acceleration x Time-squared. With distance as 2.1 billion km and time as 15 days we get 0.00062 km/sec/sec or 0.62 meters/sec/sec. Earth’s gravity is 9.8 meters/sec/sec so we will be feeling an ‘artificial gravity’ of about 0.06 Gs….hardly enough to feel, so you will still be essentially weightless the whole journey!

If the rocket is squirting fuel (reaction mass) out its engines to produce the thrust, we can estimate that this speed has to be about 1,600 km/sec. Rocket engines are compared in terms of their Specific Impulse (SI), which is the exhaust speed divided by the acceleration of gravity on Earth’s surface, so if the exhaust speed is 1,600 km/sec, then the SI = 160,000 seconds. For chemical rockets like the Saturn V, SI=250 seconds!

What technology do we need to get to these speeds and specific impulses?

The most promising technology we have today is the ion rocket engine, which has SIs in the range of 2,000 to 30,000 seconds .The largest ion engine designs include the VASIMR engine; a proposed 200 megawatt, nuclear-electric ion engine design that could conceivably get us to Mars in 39 days. Ion engines are limited by the electrical power used to accelerate the ions (currently in the kilowatt-range but gigawatts are possible if you use nuclear power plants), and the mass of the ions themselves (currently xenon atoms).

Other designs propose riding the solar wind using solar sails, however although this works on the outward-bound leg of the trip, it is very difficult to return to the inner solar system! The familiar technique of ‘tacking into the wind’ will not work because for sailboats it relies on movement through manipulating pressure changes behind the sail, while solar wind pressure changes are nearly zero. Laser propulsion systems have also been considered, but the power requirements often compete with the total electrical power generated by a large faction of the world for payloads with appreciable mass.

So, some version of ion propulsion with gigawatt power plants (fission or fusion) may do the trick. Because the SIs are so very large, the amount of fuel will be a small fraction of the payload mass, and these ships may look very much like those fantastic ships we often see in science fiction after-all!

Oh…by the way, the same technology that would get you to Pluto in 30 days would get you to Mars in 9 days and the Moon in 5 minutes.

Now, wouldn’t THAT be cool?

If you want to see some more ideas about interplanetary travel, have a look at my book ‘Interplanetary Travel:An astronomer’s guide’ available at

Check back here on Monday, January 2 for the next installment!

Selling Ice to Eskimos

Looking beyond our first journeys to Mars in the 2030s, and perhaps setting up outposts there in the 2040s, a frequently-mentioned plan for commercialization of space often brings up the prospects of interplanetary mining. A bit of careful thought can define the prospects and successes for such a venture if we are willing to confront them honestly.

The biggest challenge is that the inner solar system out to the asteroid belt is vastly different than the outer solar system from Jupiter to the distant Kuiper Belt. It is as though they occupy two completely separate universes, and for all intents and purposes, they do!

The inner solar system is all about rocky materials, either on accessible planetary surfaces and their moons, or in the form of asteroids like this photo of asteroid Vesta. We have studied a representative sample of them and they are rich in metals, silicates and carbon-water compounds. Lots of fantastic raw materials here for creating habitats, building high-tech industries, and synthesizing food.

Humans tend to ‘follow the water’ and we know that the polar regions of Mercury and the Moon have water-ice locked away in permanently shadowed craters under the regolith. Mars is filthy rich with water-ice, which forms the permanent core of its polar caps, and probably exists below the surface in the ancient ocean basins of the Northern Hemisphere. Many asteroids in the outer belt are also rich in water, as are the occasional cometary bodies that pass through our neighborhood dozens of times a year.

The inner solar system is also compressed in space. Typical closest distances between its four planets can be about 30 million miles, so the technological requirements for interplanetary travel are not so bad. Over the decades, we have launched about 50 spacecraft to inner solar system destinations for a modest sum of money and rocketry skill.

The outer solar system is quite another matter.

Just to get there we have to travel over 500 million miles to reach Jupiter…ten times the distance to Mars when closest to Earth. The distances between destinations in the outer solar system are close to one billion miles! We have sent ten spacecraft to study these destinations. You cannot land on any of the planets there, only their moons. Even so, many of these moons (e.g those near Jupiter) are inaccessible to humans due the intense radiation belts of their planets.

The most difficult truth to deal with in the outer solar system is the quality of the resources we will find there. It is quite clear from astronomical studies and spacecraft visits that the easiest accessible resources are various forms of water and methane ice. What little rocky material there is, is typically buried under hundreds of kilometers of ice, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus shown here, or at the cores of the massive planets. The concept of mining in the outer solar system is one of recovering ice, which has limited utility for fabricating habitats or being used as fuel and reaction mass.

The lack of commercializable resources in the outer solar system is the biggest impediment to developing future ‘colonization’ plans for creating permanent, self-sustaining outposts there. This is dramatically different than what we encounter in the inner solar system where minable resources are plentiful, and water is far less costly to access than in the outer solar system.

Astronomically speaking, we will have much to occupy ourselves in developing the inner solar system for human access and commercialization, but there is a big caveat. Mined resources cannot be brought back to Earth no matter how desirable the gold, platinum and diamonds might be that are uncovered. The overhead costs to mine and ship these desirable resources is so high that they will never be able to compete with similar resources mined on Earth. Like they say about Las Vegas, ‘what is mined in space, stays in space’. Whatever resources we mine will be utilized to serve the needs of habitats on Mars and elsewhere, where the mining costs are just part of the high-cost bill for having humans in space in the first place.

The good news, however, is that the outer solar system will be the playground for scientific research, and who knows, perhaps even tourism. The same commercial pressures that will drive rocket system technology to get us to Mars in 150 days, will force these trips to take months, then weeks, then days. Once we can get to Mars in a week or less, we can get to Pluto in a handful of months, not the current ten-year journeys. Like so many other historical situations, scientific research and tourism became viable goals for travel as partners to the political or commercial competition to get to India in the 1500s, the Moon in the 1960s…or Mars in the 2000s.

In the grand scheme of things, we have all the time in the world to make this happen!

For more about this, have a look at my book ‘Interplanetary Travel:An Astronomer’s Guide’, for details about resources, rocket technology, and how to keep humans alive, based upon the best current ideas in astronomy, engineering, psychology and space medicine. Available at

Check back here on Friday, December 30 for the next installment!