NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Tuesday a collaboration to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket engine in space, an enabling capability for NASA crewed missions to Mars.
NASA and DARPA will partner on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, program. The non-reimbursable agreement designed to benefit both agencies, outlines roles, responsibilities, and processes aimed at speeding up development efforts.
“NASA will work with our long-term partner, DARPA, to develop and demonstrate advanced nuclear thermal propulsion technology as soon as 2027. With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Congratulations to both NASA and DARPA on this exciting investment, as we ignite the future, together.”
Using a nuclear thermal rocket allows for faster transit time, reducing risk for astronauts. Reducing transit time is a key component human missions to Mars, as longer trips require more supplies and more robust systems. Maturing faster, more efficient transportation technology will help NASA meet its Moon to Mars Objectives.
Other benefits to space travel include increased science payload capacity and higher power for instrumentation and communication. In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion.
“NASA has a long history of collaborating with DARPA on projects that enable our respective missions, such as in-space servicing,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Expanding our partnership to nuclear propulsion will help drive forward NASA’s goal to send humans to Mars.”
Under the agreement, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will lead technical development of the nuclear thermal engine to be integrated with DARPA’s experimental spacecraft. DARPA is acting as the contracting authority for the development of the entire stage and the engine, which includes the reactor. DARPA will lead the overall program including rocket systems integration and procurement, approvals, scheduling, and security, cover safety and liability, and ensure overall assembly and integration of the engine with the spacecraft. Over the course of the development, NASA and DARPA will collaborate on assembly of the engine before the in-space demonstration as early as 2027.
“DARPA and NASA have a long history of fruitful collaboration in advancing technologies for our respective goals, from the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon for the first time to robotic servicing and refueling of satellites,” said Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director, DARPA. “The space domain is critical to modern commerce, scientific discovery, and national security. The ability to accomplish leap-ahead advances in space technology through the DRACO nuclear thermal rocket program will be essential for more efficiently and quickly transporting material to the Moon and eventually, people to Mars.”
The last nuclear thermal rocket engine tests conducted by the United States occurred more than 50 years ago under NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application and Rover projects.
“With this collaboration, we will leverage our expertise gained from many previous space nuclear power and propulsion projects,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for STMD. “Recent aerospace materials and engineering advancements are enabling a new era for space nuclear technology, and this flight demonstration will be a major achievement toward establishing a space transportation capability for an Earth-Moon economy.”
NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and industry are also developing advanced space nuclear technologies for multiple initiatives to harness power for space exploration. Through NASA’s Fission Surface Power project, DOE awarded three commercial design efforts to develop nuclear power plant concepts that could be used on the surface of the Moon and, later, Mars.
NASA and DOE are working another commercial design effort to advance higher temperature fission fuels and reactor designs as part of a nuclear thermal propulsion engine. These design efforts are still under development to support a longer-range goal for increased engine performance and will not be used for the DRACO engine.
To learn more about STMD, please visit:
NASA Awards Millions to Historically Black Colleges, Universities
NASA is awarding $11.7 million to eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) through the new Data Science Equity, Access, and Priority in Research and Education (DEAP) opportunity. These awards will enable HBCU students and faculty to conduct innovative data science research that contributes to NASA’s missions.
“We’re pleased to make progress through awards like this to intentionally build the STEM pipeline of the future, especially in communities of color,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “It’s fitting during Black History Month that we make this tangible step to build on the talent pool at HBCUs in our ongoing work to bring to the table all the talents and perspectives we’ll need to send humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond, and do amazing science throughout the solar system.”
Technology advancements in the field of data science, including the growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning, are poised to significantly impact the work of data scientists and analysts. The awarded projects have up to three years to establish institutes and partnerships to increase the number and research capacity of STEM students at HBCUs, accelerate innovation in a wide range of NASA science, technology, engineering, and mathematic research areas, and prepare the future workforce for data-intensive space-based Earth sciences.
“The increasing use of data science at NASA and beyond really drives home the need for a future workforce with data science knowledge,” said Mike Kincaid, associate administrator of NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, which manages MUREP. “With our newest collaboration, NASA created an exciting pathway to find new talent at HBCUs.”
The agency’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) and the Science Mission Directorate collaborated on the DEAP opportunity, and selected the following institutions and their proposed projects:
Bethune-Cookman University Inc., Daytona Beach, Florida
NASA MUREP DEAP Institute of Environmental Intelligence for Advanced Space-based Earth Sciences
The project will establish a DEAP Institute focusing on machine learning-based development of a virtual constellation of satellites that will capture changing water levels, from events such as storm flooding to multi-decadal time scales, such as sea level rise. NASA tracks sea level changes and its causes from space.
Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, North Carolina
Institute for Multi-agent Perception through Advanced Cyberphysical Technologies (IMPACT)
The IMPACT project will build on existing capacity and collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Silicon Valley, California, to engage students and faculty in using data science to address scientific questions as one of the key factors to manage NASA’s Earth mission research.
Florida A & M University, Tallahassee, Florida
Effects of Gravity on Creeping Salts and Salt Mixtures: Developing Image-based and AI-enhanced Diagnostics for Determining Chemical Compositions
This project will rely on artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand the science of concentrated salt solutions and the formation of ring-like deposits called evaporites. Understanding the science of salt concentrations and formation of evaporites will bring new insight into identifying where water may have existed. Water is a critical source NASA researches and explores to better understand other planets’ surface geology and the potential future of lunar and Martian exploration.
Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri
Using Data Science to Understand Soil, Wildfire, & Social Disparity of Climate Change and Air Pollution
This project aims to provide data science problem-solving, skill development, and professional development of minority and underserved students. Students will utilize existing state-of-the-art ML methods to develop new data analytic approaches to solve some of the core problems in Earth science research.
Morgan State University, Baltimore
Long-Term, High-Resolution Urban Aerosol Database for Research, Education and Outreach
Through innovative data analysis algorithms, including ML/AI methods, this project will produce a high-resolution, open-access, and user-friendly urban aerosol database focusing on the Baltimore-Washington area. The database will also be used in both classroom teaching and scientific outreach, accompanied by online tools and educational materials bringing new, authentic Earth science education to local schools and communities.
North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, Greensboro, North Carolina
DEAP Institute: Harnessing Data Science for Flood Monitoring and Management
Three North Carolina-based HBCUs will work together on this project developed to harness data science for flood monitoring and management.
North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina
Capacity Building to Support the Machine Learning-Based Detection of Floods and other Natural Hazard Impacts in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences at North Carolina Central University
This project will create training, data resources, and opportunities to use machine learning/artificial intelligence to identify and measure the impact of flood events and other natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and more.
Prairie View A & M University, Prairie View, Texas
DEAP Institute in Research and Education for Science Translation via Low-Resource Neural Machine Translation
This project aims to build an AI-based system that can share interactive, instantaneous, and user-relevant Earth science information, making NASA science more discoverable and accessible to a broad audience.
“NASA is tackling how to use the latest techniques in data science combined with the volumes of data produced by our missions to answer questions about our changing planet,” said Steven Crawford, senior program executive for scientific data and computing. “Working with students from HBCUs will not only engage the generation that will be most affected by these subjects but will help NASA scientists and engineers address these challenges.”
Administered by OSTEM, MUREP supports and invests in the research, academic, and technology capabilities of Minority Serving Institutions. For more information about NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, visit:
Astronomers use novel technique to find starspots
New method seen as powerful tool in studying stars
Newswise — COLUMBUS, Ohio – Astronomers have developed a powerful technique for identifying starspots, according to research presented this month at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Our sun is at times dotted with sunspots, cool dark regions on the stellar surface generated by strong magnetic fields, which suppress churning motions and impede the free escape of light. On other stars, these phenomena are called starspots, said Lyra Cao, lead author of the study and a graduate student in astronomy at The Ohio State University.
“Our study is the first to precisely characterize the spottiness of stars and use it to directly test theories of stellar magnetism,” said Cao. “This technique is so precise and broadly applicable that it can become a powerful new tool in the study of stellar physics.”
Use of the technique will soon allow Cao and her colleagues to release a catalog of starspot and magnetic field measurements for more than 700,000 stars – increasing the number of these measurements available to scientists by three orders of magnitude.
Since sunspots were first discovered in the 17th century, scientists have typically detected signatures of stellar magnetism indirectly, by looking at stars through different filters or detecting the modulation of spots in a star’s light curve. But by analyzing legacy high-resolution infrared spectra from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Cao was able to develop a technique for identifying starspots in 240 stars from two open star clusters, the Pleiades and M67.
The study showed that precision starspot measurements are a powerful new class of data which could help researchers understand how stellar magnetic fields work. Due to precision of the technique, Cao was also able to see how age and rotation affected the magnetic fields on these stars.
“It was lurking in plain sight: Within the spectrum, there was a cooler component corresponding to the starspot which was only visible in the infrared,” Cao said.
As it turns out, younger stars can be enveloped in starspots – some of them more “spot” than star, with 80% of their surfaces covered. During her studies, Cao realized that these larger cooler regions may block so much light, it might have a measurable effect on these stars. Since the light must eventually escape, she said, the star compensates by expanding and cooling enough to make more surface area available for radiation.
Researchers also found that relying on classical methods to estimate the temperatures of these stars could be wrong by more than 100 degrees. Because scientists often rely on a star’s temperature when trying to estimate its size, astronomers could wrongly assume the radius of the star is smaller than it actually is.
“When this happens, you start seeing large changes in the stars’ structure, which can throw other important astronomical measurements off as well,” said Cao. As scientists use stellar parameters to understand our solar neighborhood and galaxy, and at times, the sizes and habitability prospects of nearby exoplanets, this method could dramatically improve researchers’ ability to test other scientific theories.
Additionally, researchers found a class of stars that are too active for standard theories to explain in the Pleiades cluster. According to Cao, these stars are not only magnetic and rife with starspots, but also overflowing with UV and X-ray radiation.
“You wouldn’t want to live around these stars,” said Cao. “But understanding why these stars are so active could change our models and criteria for exoplanetary habitability.” Further study of these unusual stars could hold the key for understanding why low mass stars are so active, the study notes.
“We can directly study the evolution of stellar magnetism in hundreds of thousands of stars with this new dataset, so we expect this will help develop key insights in our understanding of stars and planets,” said Cao.
Marc Pinsonneault, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State, co-authored the study. This work was supported by NASA.
Contact: Lyra Cao, [email protected]
Written by: Tatyana Woodall, [email protected]
Source: Ohio State University
NASA’s Joe Acaba to Serve as Agency’s Chief Astronaut
Lee esta nota de prensa en español aquí.
NASA has appointed veteran astronaut Joe Acaba as chief of the Astronaut Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A decorated veteran of multiple spaceflights, as well a former U.S. Marine and former educator, Acaba is the first person of Hispanic heritage selected to lead the office.
Acaba takes the place of NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, who spent two years as deputy chief and has been acting chief of the office since NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman left the post late last year.
“Congratulations to Joe Acaba on being named the new chief of the astronaut office! Joe is an experienced space flyer and a proven leader, and he will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of NASA astronauts. As we build on the International Space Station’s unparalleled success in low-Earth orbit with our eyes on the Moon and then Mars, Joe will play an integral role in ensuring our NASA astronauts are prepared for the challenges ahead,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “I also want to thank Reid Wiseman for his steady leadership, and to Drew Feustel for jumping in to continue the office’s long legacy of excellence and integrity.”
In his new role, Acaba will be responsible for managing astronaut resources and operations. He also will help develop astronaut flight crew operation concepts and make crew assignments for future spaceflight missions, including astronauts assigned to fly on Artemis missions.
“Our Johnson Space Center team congratulates Joe Acaba on his appointment to chief of the Astronaut Office. We wish him well as he takes on this new and exciting leadership role,” said NASA Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche. “I extend my sincerest thanks to Reid Wiseman for his dedicated service to the Astronaut Office, as he completed the tremendous task of preparing our astronaut corps for daring missions to and from the International Space Station, and integrating their expertise and space knowledge to develop and test future technologies, software, and procedures, making space travel safer, reliable, comfortable, and attainable for our nation’s explorers. A special thank you to Drew Feustel for stepping in to lead our astronaut corps following Reid’s transition. I appreciate his willingness to step in and help prepare our nation’s astronauts to explore space for the benefit of humanity.”
A veteran of three spaceflights, Acaba was born in Inglewood, California. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology at University of California in Santa Barbara, one master’s degree in geology from the University of Arizona, and one in education, curriculum and instruction from Texas Tech University, Lubbock. Before his selection as an astronaut candidate in 2004, Acaba spent time in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and the Peace Corps, worked as a hydrogeologist, and taught high school and middle school.
“Joe is an excellent leader who brings a wealth of experience to the Astronaut Office,” said NASA’s Director of Flight Operations Norm Knight, who made the selection. “Knowing the significance of this position and the integrity of those who have previously served, I am confident Joe will be an outstanding chief for the Astronaut Office who will successfully lead our astronauts through an exciting future.”
Acaba spent 306 days in space, serving as mission specialist on space shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 mission and as flight engineer aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 31 and 32 in 2012, as well as Expeditions 53 and 54 in 2017-2018. During that time, he took part in three spacewalks building and upgrading the space station, supported the arrival of the first commercial resupply spacecraft, SpaceX’s Dragon, in May 2012. He was aboard the station when its standard crew complement increased from three to six, enabling NASA and its international partners to double the amount time dedicated to research. Since returning to Earth, he has supported the astronaut office in a number of roles, including director of operations in Russia, and chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office.
Wiseman served as chief astronaut for two years before stepping down Nov. 14, 2022, to return to the pool of astronauts eligible for flight assignments. Feustel will continue to support the Astronaut Office.
Follow Acaba on Twitter.
View Acaba’s complete biography at:
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