[The text below is a modified transcript of this video.]
5) Inflatable Space Station
We're this close to having a bouncy castle in space. NASA just ordered an inflatable module that will attach to the International Space Station.
Start up company Bigelow Aerospace won an 18 million dollar contract from NASA to build the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. The module is just 4 meters long and 3.2 meters in diameter. That’s a little bit larger than your average car, but it’s designed to provide more living space for the ISS.
BEAM will travel to the space station in 2015, where it will be installed and inflated. For two years, the module will be monitored and tested to see how it holds up.
Then, BEAM will detach, fall towards Earth, and burn up. Because the walls of the inflatable module are about four times lighter than those currently used on the ISS, they're much cheaper to lift into orbit. Their light weight could make blow-up modules the space technology of the future, whether used as free-floating space stations or for moon bases.
4) Monkey Launch
Last week, the Iranian space agency said it wants to launch a monkey into space--again. The first attempt, in the summer of 2011, failed. Officials gave no details about what went wrong.
According to the Iranians, within the next month a live Rhesus monkey will be launched into space aboard a Safir rocket. The monkey will reach a sub-orbit altitude and assuming everything goes to plan, return to Earth safely.
The Iranian government has said it wants send an astronaut into space by 2020 and to the moon by 2025. So, sending a monkey would be a significant first step. In the 1950s and 60s the US, French, and Russian governments tested the safety of their spacecraft by sending dogs, monkeys, and even chimps into space.
But critics of Iran's space program are skeptical of such rocket tests and worry they are a just cover for developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload.
Politics aside, we hope the monkey makes it safely back to Earth.
3) Lunar Hedgehogs
Scientists must love sending bouncy objects into space. First it was an inflatable space station, then monkeys and now it’s spiky robots!
Researchers have proposed a mission to explore Phobos, one of the two moons circling Mars. Drafted by scientists from Stanford, NASA and MIT, the mission would have two stages. In the first, a surveyor satellite would travel to Phobos. And in the second, it would release spherical robots, called hedgehogs, onto the moon’s surface.
Because the gravity on Phobos is even weaker than on Mars, it would be difficult for a rover like Curiosity to get traction. But a spherical robot with spikes would be able to tumble, bounce and hop over the terrain. To create movement, the hedgehogs, about half a meter across, will have three rotating discs inside. This will enable them to fly in different directions and explore the surface.
While the surveyor monitors the orbit of Phobos from afar, the hedgehogs will study the chemical composition of the moon and analyze the soil and rocks.
If approved and funded, we’ll see the hedgehogs released in a decade.
2) Martian Groundwater
We already know water once flowed over the surface of Mars. Now pictures from the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, suggest those waters may have run deep underground too.
Hi-res images of McLaughlin Crater show a pit 2.2 kilometers deep and 92 kilometers wide; slightly deeper and nearly three times wider than the Grand Canyon.
The pictures also reveal minerals, such as carbonate, that build up when water is present. But if a massive lake once filled the crater, where did the water come from? The Orbiter's images show no evidence of surface streams leading to McLaughlin. So researchers suspect groundwater fed the lake instead.
This finding is particularly exciting because it suggests the Martian subsurface was once like Earth’s. And since microbes abound below our planet's surface, life may have thrived underground on Mars as well.
The study is published in the January 20 online edition of Nature Geoscience (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group).
1) Saturn’s Super-Sized Storm
In December 2010, a giant thunderstorm broke out on Saturn. This wouldn't normally be a big deal—similar storms form almost every Saturn-year, or once every 30 Earth years. But this storm was the longest ever recorded and it was huge.
Luckily, NASA's Cassini spacecraft was nearby to observe as the storm spread across Saturn's surface. In the lead was a lightning-filled section called the head, followed by a circulating vortex, and trailing, a tail of clouds. To imagine the scale of this enormous storm, you have to realize the vortex alone was about as wide as Earth. Plus, the weather disruptions caused an even bigger vortex to form higher in Saturn’s atmosphere. Although this one was four times larger than the original, it was only visible in the infrared range.
After a record 200 days, the monster storm finally dissipated in June 2011, and its description was published this month (preview). But the storm hasn't quite finished. Saturn's atmosphere will be feeling its aftermath for years to come.
- Portions of the script above written by Sophie Bushwick, Eric R. Olson & Isha Soni