The two coolest words in the English language are not “synergistic globalization” or “real-time” or even “cellar door.” They may not be the most poetically underused or grammatically correct, but the words “space tech” represent some of the most exciting changes taking place around us in laboratories, universities and even high above the atmosphere, in outer space itself.
First, let’s talk about thrust. Most of the useful energy of a rocket launch goes toward putting the hunk of metal and plastic in Earth’s orbit — all the fire and explosions that accompany a SpaceX rocket aren’t present once you’re a few hundred kilometers up. At that point, satellites that intend to stick around use more passive forms of rocket propulsion powered not by chemicals, but often by clean, quiet electricity. Electric propulsion (EP for short) is what keeps our TV and communication satellites from falling out of their orbits with small controlled thrusts here and there carefully vectored through algorithms. It isn’t very strong — exerting forces comparable to the weight of only a few ounces — but very efficient, often an order of magnitude more so than its chemical cousin.
As such, EP isn’t just for supporting altitude — long range missions like the Voyager II, and more recently NASA JPL’s Dawn mission, use electric propulsion to traverse long distances by slowly, steadily building acceleration. Dawn uses a state of the art, electrically powered ion engine to explore two of the solar system’s largest asteroids: Vesta and Ceres. It’s the first human spacecraft to successfully orbit two celestial bodies over the course of one mission, and this feat was only made possible through the use of its specialized thruster. Here at the University, we have the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Lab that is working on a number of EP projects, including the adaptation of electric propulsion to smaller and smaller satellites.
On top of propulsion technologies, research happens all the time in space. The International Space Station is an internationally run space station hanging in low Earth orbit. One of the major uses of the station is to study phenomena that normally wouldn’t be possible on Earth due to gravity. One of the more interesting experiments commonly performed involves the behavior of liquids in zero-g: enter the ISS espresso machine.
As any workaholic knows, caffeine is an essential part of staying focused when working after hours. Astronauts are no exception. The recent SpaceX launch brought a number of essential supplies to the space station, including the ISS’s very first espresso machine, which according to NASA, “may lead to new or improved brewing methods” when it is tested in microgravity. The machine, referred to as “ISSpresso” also allows NASA to test their new beverage holder termed the “Capillary Beverage Study” which takes advantage of surface tension and other liquid fluid phenomena to improve pouring in zero-g. (Try to imagine pouring liquid into a cup when there is no ‘down’ established by gravity!)
Finally, let’s talk about the passion that the development of space technology inspires, even if it never makes it to orbit. Here at the University, a small team of students led by Engineering junior Rob Gitten is hard at work designing for humanity’s future in space. As part of NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition, this group has come up with a plan to build a 24-person town on Mars. The mission relies on space tech both old and new, utilizing both SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology and NASA’s more conservative space launch system. The RASC-AL team met every year and recently presented their proposal at a meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. With the dedication of true Wolverines, they are working for a day when humanity has a new home in the sky.
Opportunities like RASC-AL bring to light many of the positive impacts space-oriented technology has both on the scientists and engineers who design it and the people, like you or I, whose lives are infinitely improved by it. Satellites bring us pictures of our planet and others, opening our eyes to the splendor of the cosmos and our place within it. Rockets by their very nature inspire dreams, and technology, such as electric propulsion, is the reality of those dreams — the end product of what might have started out merely as ‘what if.’ And coffee in space is pretty cool no matter which way you spin it.