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This tiny, trailblazing satellite is taking on a big moon mission

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This tiny, trailblazing satellite is taking on a big moon mission

In a few years, if all goes well, NASA astronauts will ride to the moon aboard an Orion capsule, an 8.5-ton shelter that fills up a large room. But on the other end of the size spectrum—yet, in many ways, no less important to those lunar exploration goals—sits a spacecraft that could fit, neatly, on an office desk.

That craft is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment—CAPSTONE, for short. It will launch for the moon in late June, potentially becoming the first lunar satellite of its class. And it’s going on a test run where future, perhaps shinier missions are planned to follow. CAPSTONE may help NASA create a communications hub that, not too far in the future, will circle the moon. 

The fellowship of the CubeSat

Despite its size, CAPSTONE is remarkable for a few reasons, many of which have to do with the satellite’s class: CubeSat.

CubeSats are, well, cubic: The common base models are about 4 inches to a side and weigh no more than 4.5 pounds. You could hold one in your hand; you might even build one by hand, too, since most use off-the-shelf components. You can stack them into larger satellites. CAPSTONE combines 12 CubeSats, shy of the largest to date (which used 16). 

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From 1998 to the start of June 2022, 1,862 CubeSats have launched—and that number is set to more than double by 2028. CubeSats’ low cost means that they’re within reach of amateurs, university groups, fledgling startups, small developing countries, and others who lack the resources of SpaceX or the world’s big space agencies.

But CubeSats’ low cost has made them appealing for other missions, too. In 2019, NASA contracted private firm Advanced Space to build CAPSTONE for $13.7 million. (For comparison, even the most rudimentary large lunar probe can cost an order of magnitude more.) Advanced Space chose to use CubeSats to put the probe into space cheaply and quickly.

[Related: This satellite has high hopes—the transformation of Finland’s space industry]

The vast majority of CubeSats live in Earth orbit. Only a few have gone beyond that. In 2018, two arrived at Mars alongside NASA’s Mars InSight mission. Absolutely none have gone to CAPSTONE’s destination in the moon’s orbit.

“To date, there have not been lunar cubesats,” says Jekan Thanga, an engineer at the University of Arizona, who isn’t involved with CAPSTONE. “CAPSTONE is actually going to be a first in that respect.”

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Other CubeSats are riding with the Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight. Depending on when they launch—currently scheduled for no earlier than August—they may outrace CAPSTONE to the moon.

CAPSTONE’s two missions

CAPSTONE will launch from Wallops Island in the Chesapeake Bay on an Electron rocket, built by private space company Rocket Labs, who mainly launch little satellites into Earth orbit. CAPSTONE will be Electron’s first attempt to reach for the moon. “That’s also a bit of precedent,” says Thanga.

In early November, after a 3.5-month-long voyage, CAPSTONE will insert itself into a peculiarly elongated loop around the moon, called a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). This swings from 1,000 miles above one pole to 43,500 miles above the other pole. Entering NRHO is more than just a fun curiosity. CAPSTONE will test this orbit for the future Lunar Gateway, a moon-orbiting space station planned as part of the Artemis program.

“There’s no real uncertainty that the math works,” says Cheetham, but CAPSTONE will give spacecraft operators practice for getting into that orbit.

While it’s orbiting the moon, CAPSTONE will try to do something else: talk to a spacecraft without contacting ground control on Earth. CAPSTONE’s onboard computer will try to link with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, an earlier NASA spacecraft that’s been mapping the moon’s surface since 2009, and calculate the positions of both spacecraft. When communication from Earth to the moon, even at light speed, takes more than 1 second, being able to chat with local satellites is a useful ability.

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Future CubeSats, Thanga says, might be able to make that ability more permanent. For instance, it would enable easier communication to the lunar far side, currently out of Earth’s reach. When the Chinese lander Chang’e-4 touched down on the moon’s far side last year, it needed another satellite to relay messages to and from Earth. 

Lunar satellites that talk with each other can more easily avoid collisions, and they won’t have to hail Earth’s ground control for their every need. “What we want to do is prioritize that ground contact,” Cheetham says, removing routine location checks in favor of transmitting important operational data,

Communication is king

The world’s attention will likely be on the crewed Artemis fights—whenever they actually get off the ground, with the first set for 2024. But small-scale missions like CAPSTONE are necessary to lay the groundwork (or spacework, as it were) for those astronauts.

More moon missions are in the pipeline, potentially launching as soon as the end of this year. NASA has tapped a handful of companies to build an armada of lunar landers—fitted with science experiments for measuring things like subsurface water, the composition of the moon’s surface, and the strength of its magnetic field—that test the prospects for future lunar living.

[Related: We could actually learn a lot by going back to the moon]

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As more and more Artemis flights and astronauts make it to the moon, they’ll rely on infrastructure like the Lunar Gateway, which will act as a communications center and a delivery hub for astronauts on the surface. That plan has faced criticism—some commentators have suggested sending moon landings through Gateway will make missions require more energy and expensive fuel.

But Gateway is only the start. The space agencies and their partners behind Artemis are planning everything from lunar mines to lunar satnav to lunar nuclear power plants.

“The feeling is there’s going to be a lot more traffic to the moon,” says Thanga, “and that requires a lot more infrastructure, including systems like the Gateway.”

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Global Warming Causes Fewer Tropical Cyclones

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Global Warming Causes Fewer Tropical Cyclones

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But having fewer hurricanes and typhoons does not make them less of a threat. Those that do manage to form are more likely to reach higher intensities as the world continues to heat up with the burning of fossil fuels.


Scientists have been trying for decades to answer the question of how climate change will affect tropical cyclones, given the large-scale death and destruction these storms can cause. Climate models have suggested the number of storms should decline as global temperatures rise, but that had not been confirmed in the historical record. Detailed tropical cyclone data from satellites only go back until about the 1970s, which is not long enough to pick out trends driven by global warming.


The new study worked around those limitations by using what is called a reanalysis: the highest-quality available observations are fed into a weather computer model. “That’s something which gets us close to what the observation would have looked like,” essentially “filling in the gaps,” says study co-author Savin Chand, an atmospheric scientist at Federation University Australia. This gives researchers a reasonably realistic picture of the atmosphere over time, in this case going back to 1850. Chand and his team developed an algorithm that could pick out tropical cyclones in that reanalysis data set, enabling them to look for trends over a 162-year period.

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They found the 13 percent global decrease in tropical cyclones over the period of 1900 to 2012, compared with 1850 to 1900 (the latter is widely considered a pre-global-warming reference period). There was an even larger decline of about 23 percent since around 1950, around the time global temperatures started to noticeably rise. The declines vary in different parts of the ocean. For example, the western North Pacific saw 9 percent fewer storms, and the eastern North Pacific saw 18 percent fewer over the 20th and early 21st centuries. And the North Atlantic results indicated a peculiar trend, showing an overall decrease over the past century—but with an uptick in recent decades. That shorter-term increase could be linked to natural climate variations, better detection of storms or a decrease in aerosol pollution (because aerosols have a cooling effect, and tropical cyclones thrive on warm waters).


The study provides crucial ground-truth information for evaluating climate model projections of further future changes in cyclone frequency, says Kimberly Wood, a tropical meteorologist at Mississippi State University, who was not involved with the paper.


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Chand and his colleagues link the decrease in tropical storm frequency to changes in atmospheric conditions that constrict convection—the process where warm, moist air surges upward in the atmosphere, which allows tropical cyclones to develop from small weather disturbances that act as the “seeds.” The researchers think those changes are caused by warming-driven shifts in global atmospheric circulation patterns. “It’s a pretty holistic view,” Wood says of the analysis.


But even if there are fewer tropical cyclones overall, a larger proportion of those that do form are expected to reach higher intensities because global warming is also raising sea-surface temperatures and making the atmosphere warmer and moister—the conditions these storms thrive on. “Once a tropical cyclone forms,” Chand says, “there is a lot of fuel in the atmosphere.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Andrea Thompson, an associate editor at Scientific American, covers sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaTWeather Credit: Nick Higgins

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    The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

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    The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

    Screening for breast cancer has a cost. This is shown by a Danish/Norwegian study that analysed 10,580 breast cancer deaths among Norwegian women aged 50 to 75 years.

    “The beneficial effect of screening is currently declining because the treatment of cancer is improving. Over the last 25 years, the mortality rate for breast cancer has been virtually halved,” says Henrik Støvring, who is behind the study.

    According to the researcher, the problem is that screenings lead to both overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which has a cost both on a human level and in terms of the economy.

    Overdiagnosis and overtreatment

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    When the screening was introduced, the assessment was that around twenty per cent of the deaths from breast cancer among those screened could be averted. While this corresponded to approximately 220 deaths a year in Denmark 25 years ago, today the number has been halved.

    The study shows that in 1996 it was necessary to invite 731 women to avoid a single breast cancer death in Norway, you would have to invite at least 1364 and probably closer to 3500 to achieve the same result in 2016.

    On the other hand, the adverse effects of screening are unchanged.

    “One in five women aged 50-70, who is told they have breast cancer, has received a ‘superfluous’ diagnosis because of screening — without screening, they would never have noticed or felt that they had breast cancer during their lifetime,” says the researcher.

    One in five corresponds to 900 women annually in Denmark. In addition, every year more than 5000 women are told that the screening has given rise to suspicion of breast cancer — a suspicion that later turns out to be incorrect.

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    Peaceful, small nodes — but in who?

    Henrik Støvring notes that the result is not beneficial for the screening programmes. According to him, the Norwegian results can also be transferred to Denmark. Here, women between 50 and 69 are offered a mammogram screening every second year. This is an X-ray examination of the breast, which can show whether the woman has cellular changes that could be breast cancer.

    The Danish screening programme became a national programme offered to all woman in the age group in 2007 — three years after the Norwegians. Approx. 300,000 Danish women are invited to screening for breast cancer every year.

    According to the researcher, the challenge is that we are not currently able to tell the difference between the small cancer tumours that will kill you and those that will not. Some of these small nodes are so peaceful or slow-growing that the woman would die a natural death with undetected breast cancer, if she had not been screened. But once a cancer node has been discovered, it must of course be treated, even though this was not necessary for some of the women — we just do not know who.

    “The women who are invited to screening live longer because all breast cancer patients live longer, and because we have got better drugs, more effective chemotherapy, and because we now have cancer care pathways, which mean the healthcare system reacts faster than it did a decade ago,” says Henrik Støvring.

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    Story Source:

    Materials provided by Aarhus University. Original written by Helle Horskjær Hansen. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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    Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

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    Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

    Stacking solar cells increases their efficiency. Working with partners in the EU-funded PERCISTAND project, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have produced perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with an efficiency of nearly 25percent- the highest value achieved thus far with this technology. Moreover, this combination of materials is light and versatile, making it possible to envision the use of these tandem solar cells in vehicles, portable equipment, and devices that can be folded or rolled up. The researchers present their results in the journal ACS Energy Letters.

    Perovskite solar cells have made astounding progress over the past decade. Their efficiency is now comparable to that of the long-established silicon solar cells. Perovskites are innovative materials with a special crystal structure. Researchers worldwide are working to get perovskite photovoltaic technology ready for practical applications. The more electricity they generate per unit of surface area, the more attractive solar cells are for consumers

    The efficiency of solar cells can be increased by stacking two or more cells. If each of the stacked solar cells is especially efficient at absorbing light from a different part of the solar spectrum, inherent losses can be reduced and efficiency boosted. The efficiency is a measure of how much of the incident light is converted into electricity. Thanks to their versatility, perovskite solar cells make outstanding components for such tandems. Tandem solar cells using perovskites and silicon have reached a record efficiency level of over 29percent, considerably higher than that of individual cells made of perovskite (25.7percent) or silicon (26.7percent).

    Combining Perovskites with CIS for Mobility and Flexibility

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    Combining perovskites with other materials such as copper-indium-diselenide (CIS) or copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) promises further benefits. Such combinations will make it possible to produce light and flexible tandem solar cells that can be installed not only on buildings but also on vehicles and portable equipment. Such solar cells could even be folded or rolled up for storage and extended when needed, for example on blinds or awnings to provide shade and generate electricity at the same time.

    An international team of researchers headed by Dr. Marco A. Ruiz-Preciado and tenure-track professor Ulrich W. Paetzold from the Light Technology Institute (LTI) and the Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT) at KIT has succeeded in producing perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with a maximum efficiency of 24.9percent (23.5percent certified). “This is the highest reported efficiency for this technology and the first high efficiency level reached at all with a nearly gallium-free copper-indium diselenide solar cell in a tandem,” says Ruiz-Preciado. Reducing the amount of gallium results in a narrow band gap of approximately one electron volt (eV), which is very close to the ideal value of 0.96eV for the lower solar cell in a tandem.

    CIS Solar Cells with Narrow Band Gap- Perovskite Solar Cells with Low Bromine Content

    The band gap is a material characteristic that determines the part of the solar spectrum that a solar cell can absorb to generate electricity. In a monolithic tandem solar cell, the band gaps must be such that the two cells can produce similar currents to achieve maximum efficiency. If the lower cell’s band gap changes, the upper cell’s band gap has to be adjusted to the change, and vice versa.

    To adjust the band gap for efficient tandem integration, perovskites with high bromine content are usually used. However, this often leads to voltage drops and phase instability. Since the KIT researchers and their partners use CIS solar cells with a narrow band gap at the base of their tandems, they can produce their upper cells using perovskites with low bromine content, which results in cells that are more stable and efficient.

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    “Our study demonstrates the potential of perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells and establishes the foundation for future development to make further improvements in their efficiency,” says Paetzold. “We’ve reached this milestone thanks to the outstanding cooperation in the EU’s PERCISTAND project and, in particular, thanks to our close cooperation with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.” Important groundwork was done in the CAPITANO project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).

    Story Source:

    Materials provided by Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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