Nitrogen Powered Rockets (For Titan, Triton And Pluto?)

Posted by on Mar 23, 2009 in Blog, Neptune, Pluto, Rockets, Saturn, Technology, Titan, Triton | 2 comments

(Image: A prototype of the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster. Credit: Donna Coveney / MIT)

Out “in the black” where the suns rays are much dimmer, future explorers will have to come up with innovative ways to travel to and from the gas giants, dwarf planets and the various moons that dance around their parent worlds.

While solar sails, magnetic sails and nuclear rockets could provide some measure of transport, they will probably be too expensive for the average star ship.

Since mining hydrogen directly from gas giants is suicidal due to their deep gravity wells and very fierce winds (with the only exception being Uranus), colonists beyond Jupiter may look towards nitrogen to solve their space transport needs.

(Space Travel) Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers say their new rocket — called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster — is much smaller than other rockets of its kind and could consume just one-tenth the fuel used by conventional systems. […]

The scientists said the Mini-Helicon is the first rocket to run on nitrogen, the most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere. Batishchev noted, however, it could be years before the technology can be used commercially.

While this technology will have some value on our home world, these nitrogen powered rockets may prove invaluable to worlds like Titan, Triton and Pluto who seem to be blessed with an abundance of nitrogen, respectively.

If future settlers could find ways to harvest this element from these worlds, then humanity may discover a means to travel not only throughout the outer planets, but perhaps beyond the Kuiper belt as well.

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Neptune's Triton: Is It Worth Billions, Or Trillions?

Posted by on Apr 16, 2008 in Blog, Neptune, Solar Essay, Triton | 8 comments

Of the many worlds that dance around Sun or their paternal planet, Neptune’s Triton is probably not a world that tickles one’s imagination when envisioning space colonization.

The planetary system is barely shown in films, and even less is probably written about the moon in science fiction stories.

But while moon may be ignored as scientists chase after Mars and Titan, Neptune’s Triton may in the distant future become a prime location at the edge of our solar system.

Although often known for its retrograde orbit (an unusual trait for a world this size), Triton boasts a tiny atmosphere and is located approximately 350,000 km from its blue parent.

While the small world does have some water upon its surface, it lacks any known resources that would make it an attractive target (although its nitrogen geysers would probably spark some tourism).

Despite the fact that the moon lacks a “monetary interest,” it may attract settlers seeking to harvest helium-3 from Neptune’s atmosphere.

Even though orbital stations will probably be constructed above Neptune’s atmosphere in order to harvest its helium (similar to the ones seen in Star Wars), colonists may prefer to have their families raised upon Triton’s surface, lest they see their loved ones accidentally descend into “the blue abyss” of Neptune’s clouds.

While Neptune’s helium-3 may make the system attractive, the Lagrange asteroids sharing the planet’s orbit could “seal the deal” for establishing cities on that cold, frozen world.

Despite the dangers of mining asteroids, Neptunian colonists could use resources mined from these numerous floating space rocks to not only build up their tiny frozen world, but their economy as well.

Despite the fact that future colonists will probably have to live within aquarium homes (due to radiation) and wear gravity suits, settlers living upon Triton will probably find life to be fairly comfortable (at least financially), despite the fact that they are over 4.5 billion km from humanities Earthen homeworld.

(Image Credits: NASA)

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Which Worlds Should Humanity Skip?

Posted by on Sep 12, 2007 in Blog, Charon, Europa, Io, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune, Pluto, Saturn, Solar Essay, Uranus, Venus | 2 comments

With our species blessed with 83 worlds that orbit our home star, why would we choose to settle some and skip the rest? After all, would it not be in humanities best interest to spread our glory over every celestial moon, planet and dwarf planet?

While covering every centimeter of every orbiting sphere may sound glorious, it may not be practical (or even desired) by our future descendants. Just as the human race chooses to (mainly) live within fertile valley’s and hills over deserts and mountains, so to our children may opt to skip worlds with “too much hassle” involved in settling them.

A prime example of this would be Mercury. Although humanity may posses the capability of colonizing this sphere, its close orbit towards the Sun may make it uninhabitable, at least during the day time (thanks to solar radiation).

Even though Mercury may contain many precious metals beneath its baked crust, it will probably never boast large metropolis’s upon its surface, unless Earth decides to turn it into a planetary penal colony.

Moving outward to Venus, one could easily realize why humanity would never ever want to set foot on the planet, let alone through its thick atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure on Venus is about 90 times that of Earth, strong enough to crush a human unprotected.

Hosting sulfuric acid within its upper clouds, Venus may be more valuable as an interplanetary garbage dump than a viable colony (even for science).

Over in the Jovian system, Jupiter’s moon Io shares a similar fate to Venus. Although lacking an atmosphere, Io does house numerous volcanoes upon its surface, some of which spew hot sulfur hundreds of kilometers from its surface.

Even if scientists were able to withstand the deadly radiation that engulfs this world, they would probably not enjoy swimming in one of Io’s numerous lava lakes.

Despite the fact that Io’s lunar sister is known to harbor an abundance of water ice, Europa may only gather a mournful glance from a few scientists observing from Ganymede. Even though many scientists suspect that Europa may have oceans beneath its surface, the world is jealously guarded by its father Jupiter, who bathes its lunar daughter in deadly radiation.

While some have suggested digging a hole beneath the icy surface, doing so may only guarantee ones fate within the icy walls, as Europa has a fairly active surface, which could result in one getting crushed by its icy “tectonic plates.”

When it comes to radiation, Saturn’s ring worlds do not seem to fare any better than Europa. While the icy moons of Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea may find their surfaces scoured by robots (in search of water ice), these lunar bodies unfortunately orbit within Saturn’s radiation belts.

Even though engineers will probably find a way to shield themselves with artificial magnetic fields (or even create enormous planetary versions), the added cost of doing so may make living on these worlds too expensive for the “average space colonist.”

The moons of Uranus and Neptune who dance around their green and blue parents, respectively may share a similar fate to their Saturian cousins.

Although its quite possible that these moons may eventually be settled by humanity, they may find themselves harboring space pirates (to the delight of solar governments everywhere) as their distance from Earth and lack of nearby resources may make them unattractive for the masses.

Heading out towards the Kuiper belt, one wonders whether humanity will have the attention span of settling any of these frozen objects at the edge of our solar system.

Although colonizing both Pluto and Charon could provide a few engineering delights, one wonders if humanity may simply decide to ignore these historical relics as they head out to other promising star systems.

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A Neptunian Asteroid Belt?

Posted by on Jun 16, 2006 in Asteroids, Blog, Exploration, Neptune | 0 comments

(Hat Tip: The Astronomy Blog)

A group of asteroids have been detected sharing Neptune’s orbit. These asteroids are located within the Lagrange zone, a point 60 degrees ahead of a planet. Although a second zone orbiting behind Neptune has not been discovered yet, scientists suspect that the cloud may exist.

(New Scientist Space) A newly discovered asteroid in Neptune’s orbit indicates the existence of a much larger, but as-yet-unseen, cloud of rocks in that region. The asteroids in Neptune’s orbit might even outnumber those in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the new research suggests. […]

The asteroids orbit 60 [degrees], or about 5 billion kilometres, ahead of Neptune on its circular orbit around the Sun, which is a gravitationally stable location called a Lagrange point. But the newly-found asteroid is unique in that its orbit is tilted 25° relative to the plane of the solar system.

Although the distance between a Lagrange point and its planet is about the same as the distance between a world and the Sun, this asteroid cloud may provide additional resources towards the Neptunian system. If scientists are able to determine whether these asteroids contain nickel and iron, Neptune may have a potential future as a mining system. END

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