Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Supersonic freefall and 200 year old spacecraft engines - Your science and space update includes big jumps and water on Mars

Published by Steven Roy

When the shuttle fleet was grounded it was supposed to lead to a lull in space travel and news. In fact the opposite has happened. Now that journalists and bloggers no longer have the low hanging fruit the shuttles provided they have searched out their ladders and stretched up to the more difficult branches.


Sidepodcast has always loved great photography and space provides some stunning material for photographers. Apollo 17 – the final moon mission took a photo of the Earth that became known as the blue marble. A new version was shot recently by the Suomi NPP satellite.

Over the years we have seen some spectacular shots from the International Space Station but this one of an aurora is very difficult to improve on.

Finally we have yet another incredible shot from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory showing what is left when a giant star explodes.

Dark side of the moon

We live commented the launch of the GRAIL mission which sent two identical vehicles into lunar orbit to find out what the inside of the moon is like. Before they do the inside one has completed a video of the whole of the dark side of the moon. We only ever see 59% of the moon’s surface from Earth so there is 41% we never see. We have seen little bits from Apollo but they were too close to give us the full view. I have to say I am shocked that there is not a giant prism on the dark side of the moon.

Coffee break

Some space science is so huge it is difficult to contemplate and some so apparently small as to appear insignificant. Don Pettit has the ability to make the complex appear simple by using examples anyone can understand.

For example we all know that without gravity you cannot drink from a cup because the coffee won’t stay in the cup and even if it did you can’t make it go from the cup to your mouth without gravity. Right? Wrong. You just need to know what shape to make the cup and it turns out that shape is the same shape you make a fuel tank so that fuel flows to your engine when you try to re-start it in zero G.

Oceans on Mars

We have seen evidence of water having been on Mars in the past from the rovers when a jammed wheel dragging across the surface of the planet exposed a deposit of gypsum which is a crystalline deposit originally having been in solution in water. Now the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has found sedimentary deposits that are indicative of Mars having had an ocean in the past. We had previously seen what looked like ancient shorelines but this mission has found evidence of an ancient ocean floor.

Some of the material found is thought to contain ice. I am sure I am not the only person who thinks an abundant source of ice and therefore water may be very useful to a future manned mission to Mars.

Freefalling at the speed of sound

When America decided it was going to send men to space one of the first ‘missions’ ever undertaken was to attach a man to a balloon and send him up toward the top of the atmosphere. When he got high enough he jumped off and parachuted back to Earth. Now an Austrian with Red Bull sponsorship has decided he can do the same from a good deal higher. He has a high tech balloon that will take him up 23 miles and then wearing a high tech space suit he will jump out of his little capsule and freefall and parachute to Earth. Because no-one has ever done this before no-one is absolutely sure what will happen but it is just possible that he will go supersonic on the way down. Rather him than me. You just know this kind of stunt had to be sponsored by Red Bull or Richard Branson.

Private space flight

The totally reliable Soyuz seems to have smashed a mirror or something because everything that can go wrong with it is going wrong. This has put more focus on the private space flight operators as everyone looks for an alternative to the venerable Russian vehicle.

Spacex were due to launch an unmanned Dragon capsule on a mission that would include docking with the ISS in February but that now won’t happen until probably April.

The Dragon is particularly exciting because the heat shield was not designed just to survive re-entry at the 17,000 mph it would be subjected to from low orbit missions like those to the ISS but to survive re-entry at 25,000 mph which by co-incidence would make it safe if it happened to be returning from the moon. I am sure it is just a co-incidence and they have no plans to go to the moon. Oh no.

Spacex has a lead in the race to be the first private operator to go to the ISS but they are not alone. Orbital Sciences Corporation already has a NASA contract to fly cargo to the ISS while Armadillo Aerospace has called their capsule STIG. So that should be a success unless someone offers it a book deal. There are a whole host of other companies with space vehicles at various stages of development. I must do a round up on all of them at some time but for now I keep tripping over new ones I have never heard of.

One of the major drawbacks of the space shuttle design was that there was no way to get the crew capsule away from the scene of the accident. With Apollo for example there was an escape tower right on the point of the rocket that looked like a lightning conductor. This was attached to the top of the capsule by explosive bolts so that it could be jettisoned a few minutes after launch. In the event of something going wrong during the launch or early in the flight the capsule would separate from the rocket and little rockets on the escape tower would pull the crew a few miles away from danger. Now with the private space operators we have the return of similar systems. Spacex have carried out a test of a prototype of one of the rockets they will use in event of emergency. This rocket has the rather fabulous name SuperDraco. Seems a bit over the top for a very small rocket that everyone hopes will never be used.

NASA loses more astronauts

One of the effects of the grounding of the shuttles and the rise in opportunities in private space flight is that NASA are losing astronauts right, left and centre. Yet another two massively experienced astronauts have decided to leave the agency. I long ago lost count of how many top astronauts, including a couple of former chiefs of the astronaut office, that NASA has lost but you have to wonder if one day they are going to seriously regret losing all that experience at one time. I understand the reasons for grounding the shuttles but you have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to keep flying them for a few missions every year to keep hold of some of these people.

200 year old engines

I have argued for years that if F1 really wants to be green they should use Stirling engines to recover waste heat from engines and brakes. I think on the road it makes way more sense to try to recover some of the vast amount of heat we vent to atmosphere rather than trying to recover the comparatively tiny amount of energy used in braking. The Stirling engine is a fabulous invention (Scottish obviously) and I have been totally fascinated by them since I first came across them. Wikipedia has an article on them complete with easy to understand moving graphics.

Well F1 has never shown the slightest interest in Stirling engines and now NASA may beat them to the punch. NASA doesn’t plan to do anything as mundane as recovering engine heat. If NASA uses it, it may well be to fly a plane in the atmosphere of Titan where a combination of low gravity and a thick atmosphere means it is 28 times easier to fly than on Earth. Indeed it is just possible on Titan that you could strap on some artificial wings, flap your arms and actually fly. Unfortunately the atmosphere is very poisonous and has no oxygen so it would be a short flight. Of course somewhere out there, there will be a planet or moon with those conditions and a breathable atmosphere where you could flap your arms and fly but we haven’t found it just yet.

I just discovered you can get working model Stirling engines on Amazon. This could get expensive.