Saturday, November 18, 2017

Imagining NASA With A Real Budget - ROSS 128B

ROSS 128B [image/SCI-NEWS]
How Are We Humans 
Doing With Space Exploration?
We've made some serious progress, 
but the further we go, the bigger the dreams become.

MeanMesa, no doubt just like most other Earth based creatures, has always gazed at interstellar distances with a very cloudy view of "what's possible." Setting aside the super light speed science fiction of the Enterprise, any distance greater than, for example, New Horizon's 3 billion mile junket to Pluto seemed to be permanently lodged in the realm of wishful thinking. [Voyager 1 finally exited our solar system after only 35 years at 39,000 mph.]

While promising visitors to the blog that this post will not plunge headlong "into the weeds" with way too many numbers for "palatable reading," ride along for a few minutes while we examine an "interstellar possibility." It may well be time to update our basic presumptions about a few exciting astronomical things. Let's take it "by the numbers."

1. Humans have been steadily working on rocket propulsion systems every day since Voyager 1 was launched in September, 1977.

2. Humans have been building spectacular advances to telescopes, too. These would be both elaborate terrestrial telescopes and quite impressive space telescopes.

3. Humans have been toiling diligently to reduce the cost of all parts of space exploration and exploitation.

Unhappily, there is also a fourth item which we will need to add to the list.

4. Humans have not begun to consider -- as reasonable -- space exploration projects which take a lot of time to complete. Recent probe missions have had notably longer duration than earlier efforts, but these extended duration journeys have been times in years so far. 

Although it spent a decade in orbit once it arrived, the Saturn probe, CASINI, took seven years to reach its destination. GALILEO took around eight years at 108,000 mph to reach the gas giant, Jupiter [Galileo/WIKI], and the more recent Jovian probe, JUNO, took five years at a slightly faster 164,000 mph.

In terms of typical, human appetites for "instant gratification," all these projects were reasonable enough to garner economic and political backing. In fact, a [discouragingly] small number of humans actually found these projects to be quite exciting -- even if it meant waiting for a while for the color pictures.

Since we have managed to "mature" this far, could we consider going a little further?

Time for a Paradigm Shift
Buckle up your seat belts.

An Interesting New Engine

Returning to the list above, we really have been creating some quite impressive new rocket propulsion systems. [Relax. MeanMesa isn't lurching into a wild narrative about the possibilities of an FTL drive. That discussion will have to come later.] There has been a literal "flurry" of designs for these new rocket motors, and to make the point here, we can look at an example. Take three minutes to watch a video explaining this engine.

The Aneutronic Engine [screenshot/YOUTUBE]
Aneutronic Nuclear Fusion Reactor Continuous Ion Thruster in Fusion Plasma Propulsion Engine
A Hybrid Aneutronic  Deuterium Tritium Engine Might Make Interstellar Travel Possible

A few of the video's high points are very interesting. One claim made is that this engine could propel a probe to Jupiter in 3 months. That's just enough information to allow us to make a few rough calculations.

The distance between Earth and Jupiter is around 365 million miles at its closest and 600 million miles at its most distant, so we can average things a bit to arrive at 483 million miles. Perhaps this was about the distance the Aneutronic engine claimed it might travel in 90 days. A quick bit of arithmetic tells us that this would be done at an average speed of about 5.4 million miles per day, or about 224,000 mph.

Of course, that 90 days might include some "speeding up" and "slowing down" time, so we don't need to be "overly precise" at this stage. [Such an engine could be safely launched from Earth because no neutrons are emitted. It also wouldn't violate the international treaty to not use radioactive nuclear things in space. Here's another link about the engine: Fusion Thruster for Space Travel/SPECTRUM]

Okay. This might be somewhat interesting, but what about the "paradigm?"

An Interesting New [Newly Discovered] Planet, ROSS 128B

Well, thanks to these constantly improving, modern telescopes, we have also discovered a very interesting "Earth-like" planet, ROSS 128B. Although we have been discovering "Earth-like" exoplanets fairly frequently lately, this one is "special" because it is, apparently, significantly more "Earth-like" than those discovered previously. 

Here is an excellent article from TIME Magazine which details this discovery.

Scientists Have Discovered a New Planet Close to Earth. 
Here’s Why It's So Exciting. Nov 15 2017

When ROSS 128B is described as "more Earth-like," it's important to understand the difference. KEPPLER 186F was considered "Earth-like" when it was first discovered to be in an "habitable zone" in 2014, but KEPPLER 186F is not nearly as interesting as ROSS 128B. [KEPPLER Discovers Earth Sized Planet/NASA] And, KEPPLER 186F is 500 light years away. ROSS 128B is 11 light years away.

Even though the planet orbits its red dwarf star in 9.9 days, there is a tantalizing possibility that ROSS 128B may well have a 75 degree F surface temperature. THAT'S "Earth-like."

Now It's Time To "Mix It Up"
Watch out. Here comes the arithmetic.

The numbers aren't really all that tough.

The distance to ROSS 128B is 11 light years. Since a light year is around 5.9 Trillion miles, this means that ROSS 128B is roughly 65 Trillion miles from here.

The Aneutronic engine claims that it could reach Jupiter in 90 days. That suggests that the propulsion system could accelerate a probe to at least 224,000 mph. Because it would be constantly accelerating with its continuous ion thrust, MeanMesa assumes that an Aneutronic propelled craft could reasonably reach an even significantly faster speed on a long run through empty space -- after it had some time to really speed up -- eventually hitting a full velocity possibly as high as, say, 30% C [C = light speed].

Still, we can use the more conservative estimate from the video.

Distance to Ross 128B = 11 light years 
[11 ly X 5.9 Tn miles/ly = 65 Tn miles]
65 Tn miles / 225,000 mph = 29,000,000 hrs = 12,037 days = 33 years
Of course we would like to fly by ROSS 128B a bit more slowly than 30% C so our probe's science observatory would have a little more time to look at the planet. This would require some time to decelerate before its arrival. And, it will take 11 years for the data transmission from the probe to return to Earth...but...

If ROSS 128B looked promising once we had a better chance to observe it up close, we would have had another 45 or 50 years to keep working on an even better rocket engine. We might have even had time to straighten out our nutty political and economic priorities, too.

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