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The atomic clock, the "green" propeller and the solar canvas are heading to space



SpaceX will release the third flight of its most powerful rocket, Falcon Heavy on Monday. And this time it brings many new technologies into space, ranging from a new type of atomic clock to a thin canvas that moves in sunlight. If they can survive in the harsh environment of Earth's orbit, then these new technologies could become valuable tools for future space missions.

24 satellites will fly into the space of this mission gathered by the Ministry of Defense, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Universities . Getting all these satellites into their planned orbits will not be easy. Two dozen useful loads have to be thrown into three separate orbits, which means Falcon Heavy will re-engine four times for six hours to get the satellites where they have to go. SpaceX Executive Director Elon Musk claims that this complicated flight is "the hardest firing of the company so far."

A new atomic clock goes into space

A board of one of the Falcon Heavy companions has a small clock toaster size. But it's not an ordinary watch like the one you found on a wall or a clock that you wear on your wrist. This watch is more accurate than any personal clock here on Earth. While the clocks we use eventually accelerate or slow down over time, this clock, called the Deep Space Nuclear Clock, will take up to 10 million years to get away with one second.

All clocks keep on track by measuring the time between some recurring events. Old analog watches, such as grandparents' clocks, will divert the oscillations between the pendulum moving forward and backward. Some modern watches will send voltages through quartz crystals, which will then vibrate at the same frequency every second. The atomic clock, on the other hand, measures how long it takes for small particles to pass from different energy states. Here's where these watches get their names: they deal with atoms.

The atomic clock "Deep Space" works by manipulating a specific type of charged atom known as ion. Within the clock are tubes filled with mercury ions – the same amount of mercury you would find in two canned tuna. Microwaves that are set to the correct frequency are used to disturb these ions, thus causing the excitement of mercury. This causes the ions to move back and forth between different energy states. "It's when magic happens because this frequency of transition is very well-known and very precise," says Jill Seubert, deputy chief investigator of Deep Space's Atomic Hour Mission The Verge .

NASA uses mercury-based watches for some time on earth, but the devices are usually sized with fridges and too large to fit of a spacecraft. Other smaller atomic watches have been sent to the cosmos before, but they work by measuring elements such as cesium or rubidium. Though accurate, they eventually cease to be accurate as their atoms are lost over time. "They're built into the walls of the container," says Seubert. Mercury-ion watches like the Deep Space atomic clock are even more precise as ions are not pushed into the walls of their containers, keeping the system intact.

As they are so reliable, NASA is working on miniaturizing these systems, and now the "Deep Space" atomic clock will show if a mercury-based instrument can work in space. The team behind the tool hopes to include it in August and then see if it works as scheduled next year. If so, the mission could lead to the development of other accurate atomic clocks that could help the spacecraft not only keep its time, but also move into deep space. planets and moons, you will need to have an atomic clock. "

At the present time, vehicles coming out of the orbit of our planet do not have atomic clocks and must rely on commands from the Earth for navigation. Engineers will send pingers and then wait for a vehicle response, and this time will help them determine where the spacecraft is. However, this can be a long process, depending on the distance of a spacecraft. Mars cars, for example, sometimes have to wait between four and 20 minutes for commands from Earth. But if these vehicles had atomic clocks, engineers could send pingers to the spacecraft, and their atomic clocks could calculate where they were, based on how long it took to get the signal. Then the spacecraft can move and change its direction independently. "If we want to build a GPS-like network on other planets and moons, you will have to have an atomic clock, and this technology is an obvious choice there," says Seubert.

Many of the spaceships that are at the launch of Falcon Heavy will have to maneuver after being in space, or to keep their positions stable or move to higher orbits. Typically, the chemicals used for these small engines are the same toxic materials. But a spacecraft that goes into orbit next week will test a "green" fuel type that is much more convenient for the user.

All of this is part of the NASA Green Infusion Mission (GPIM). The car will be powered by a new type of propellant developed by the US Air Force, which should serve as an alternative to hydrazine, the current engine to select most satellite engines. This new material may be an attractive option for satellite operators, as hydrazine is particularly unpleasant. It can be very reactive at room temperature and it produces toxic vapors. Hydrazine has to be transported in certain types of metal containers and explosive trucks, and people have to wear safety equipment when handling the fuel. All these precautions are complementary, making development more expensive and time consuming.

Unlike "green" propellant, which is rising next week – hydroxylammonium nitrate – is much more delicious than no harmful fumes. "You can have a jar on your desk and you can not smell anything on it," says Christopher McLean, GPIM's chief researcher at Ball Aerospace, who develops the satellite, says The Verge . "And if the temperature is not high enough it will not light up at all." This also makes transportation of this material much easier, according to McLean. "We send these things through FedEx into a plastic cup, and then put it in our loading equipment," he says.


This green propeller also has an extra bonus as it is more efficient for satellites, as it is much denser. According to McLean, you can get 50% more fuel in the satellite engine tank than with hydrazine. This may potentially allow a satellite to continue longer in orbit, as over time there will be more fuel to change its position or make maneuvers.

The only drawback of this material is that when it burns it burns hot. When the hydrazine reaches the engine, it reaches 900 degrees Celsius, while the green propellant reaches 1800 degrees Celsius. "This made it impossible to use standard hydrazine engines for that," McLean said. "We had to develop new materials and technologies that are compatible with this higher temperature."

Once in space, the GPIM satellite will test this propeller by manipulating its orbit from circular to more elliptical. Then the companion will spend about one year in air force experiments before using his propeller for the last time to get out of orbit and plunge into the earth's atmosphere.

While sailing on the sun

While NASA is testing Green Fuel, another organization will test a way to propel spacecraft through space without ever using any fuel. Instead, it just needs light from the sun.

The spacecraft is known as LightSail 2 and is a product of engineers in the Planetary Society, a non-governmental organization that advocates exploration of space. The car is equipped with a very thin canvas, made by a mylar, which is designed to expand to a large square with the size of the box. This flat surface is designed to be pushed out by the light coming from the sun. The particles of light have no mass, but make an impulse that can make very thin reflective materials move in space.

"Once you're over the atmosphere, you do not need any fuel," says Bill Nay, CEO of The Planet Society The Verge . "You use solar energy from sunlight to push you to any destination in the Solar System."

The idea of ​​a solar canvas was dreamed by the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan in the 1970s and even presented the concept of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson . Now, more than four decades later, Nay, a former disciple of Sagan, has helped make this vision a reality with others in the Planetary Society. "It's just romantic," says Nay. "It's just fantastic, the idea that you can sail on the sun's rays." In 2015, the Planetary Society launched a mission called LightSail 1, which is designed to test the mechanism of sunlight. This mission has been successful and has proven that deployment can work (although the spacecraft has been shut down several times by cunning cosmic rays)

Now the planetary society wants to sail this time. LightSail 2 moves in orbit, plugged into another spacecraft called the Prox-1, which will eventually deploy the payload in orbit. Once alone, LightSail 2 will expand its solar canvas and turn into space with an electric motor inside the spacecraft. In this way, the vehicle can orient the canvas to get the best boost from the Sun. As she travels around the planet, she will shift her position and turn to the sun on the night of the Earth. It will then bend a canvas to catch the sun's rays of the day. This pressure will ultimately increase the spacecraft's orbit over time, raising it to a higher orbit.

If this works, LightSail 2 will demonstrate a way for spacecraft to maneuver through space without the use of conventional fuels that can take up much space on a spacecraft. Instead, the small satellites around the Earth can be equipped with solar panels, which give them the much needed mobility and release the spaces for carrying more instruments and sensors. Nye also provides the opportunity to use a solar canvas to send materials to the Moon or Mars.

Once the canvas is unfolded, there is a chance that humans on Earth will be able to see it as it reflects the light from the sun. Planetary Society will provide a link to its website that includes where and when LightSail 2 will go overhead, which will enable us to look at the Earth. "We are very excited that it will engage people around the world because it is literally visible from the surface," says Nay.


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