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Science at Home

Keep learning in place and at your pace with science activities and topics you can access anytime.

Space is limitless. Our panel time, sadly, was not.

Our From Science Fiction to Science Fact livestream panelists have been kind enough to return and answer every question you sent in the Q&A. Since questions often inspire more questions, you can continue to explore by contacting our partners at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program:

Katherine Reilly: katherine.reilly@nasa.gov
NIAC Program main: hq-niac@mail.nasa.gov

Panelist Q&A

Do you think you could use the SpaceX starship to land something on Venus?

Dr. Geoffrey Landis: The SpaceX Starship, when it is completed, should be a good low-cost way to launch large missions into space. It would be very valuable for the Earth to Venus transportation of the Zephyr Landsailing rover, and future follow-on missions that might be larger and more capable. For the actual landing on Venus, we will use a heat shield and a parachute, since Venus’ thick atmosphere makes this very easy to do

How are you going to get the rover back up the crater?

Dr. Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay: The 4-wheeled DuAxel rover can break-up into two 2-wheeled Axel robots, that are connected to each other using tethers.

The Axel robot at the crater rim anchors itself, while the other Axel robot rappels down the crater using the tether for support. When the Axel at the bottom of the crater want to come up, it uses the same tether system to pull itself up.

Here is a nice JPL media article (with video) on the DuAxel robots that shows this climbing motion.

Do you think you can use nuclear engines, or use nukes nonetheless, to send heavy payloads to planets and asteroids?

Geoff: I love the idea of nuclear engines. They can be much more powerful than the chemical engines we use today. They are probably not going to be very useful for launching from the Earth, but they will be superb for traveling in the solar system from Earth to other planets (and asteroids), and from one planet to another planet.

I would think the Falcon 9 would be too small; I think its bigger brother Falcon Heavy would be a better idea?

Geoff: Yes, the Falcon Heavy is much more capable. We designed the Zephyr for the smaller launch vehicle, simply to keep the cost down, but if we could use a Falcon Heavy, we could land several Zephyrs on the surface, so we could explore many different places.

If you could live on any planet besides Earth, where would you live and why?

Kathy: I’d like to visit a few, but maybe not live on them long term. Mars is a favorite, along with Jupiter. We’d have to find another planet in a "Goldilocks Zone" with the conditions suitable for human life in order to live there which is a tall order, for now. I’d recommend anyone interested in this to look into the Drake Equation to see how many estimated habitable planets might be out there. You might be surprised!

Geoff: So many great choices! I’d like to at least visit the atmosphere of Venus (not the surface! Too hot!). High in the atmosphere, the temperature and pressure is very Earth-like … you could float in a balloon and look down on the clouds (you’d still have to bring oxygen, or make it, of course, since the atmosphere of Venus is carbon dioxide). See: How Do We Colonize Venus?

Could the Venus rover be adapted to travel over the hot sunlit surface of Mercury?

Geoff: The sail would not be useful for Mercury, of course (since Mercury doesn’t have an atmosphere), but the high-temperature electronics could be very useful for Mercury surface missions.

Do you think you could use the James Webb telescope to explore the dark ages of the universe?

Saptarshi: No. The JWST will observe the Universe in the infra-red wavelengths, so it will see the Universe from a few billion years ago.

I noticed that the solar cells are at a rather unfavorable angle. With that angle and the clouds, how will the rover get enough power?

Geoff: Since Venus is cloudy all the time, the clouds scatter the sunlight coming in, and so it comes in from all directions. So, it turns out that we can point the solar cells in almost any direction and still collect energy from the light scattered from the clouds.

As you point out, it would be more efficient to point the solar cells upward, but since we have the large sail, it turned out to be more effective to simply use that large area rather than making a new panel pointed upward.

Even with the clouds, you still do get some sunlight at the surface—the sunlight intensity is like a cloudy afternoon on Earth.

Would a helicopter like Ingenuity be possible on Venus?

Geoff: It would certainly be possible. On Venus, the problem is not flying (flying is easy in the thick atmosphere!). The hard part would be powering the helicopter. There is some sunlight on the surface (see earlier question), but we do want to use the least amount of power possible, and helicopters use a lot of power. My choice would be to build a solar-powered airplane, and fly it above the clouds (where there’s plenty of sunlight). See: Cruising the Cloud Tops of Venus

I check the NASA site regularly - Did NIAC have to do anything to do with the asteroid sample?

Kathy: Great question—you’re probably referring to OSIRIS-REx. Very exciting mission and NIAC has had many asteroid sampling studies, but we were not directly involved in OSIRIS-REx. For those interested, this site houses all of our studies if you’d like to look them over in more detail.

Do you have potential names for your inventions/projects?

Geoff: We decided to name the Venus Landsailing mission "Zephyr," in the NASA tradition of using mythological names for missions. Zephyr was the Greek god for the west wind. See: Zephyrus.

Is the Venus sail going to be able to have instrumentation or it just a proof of concept at this point?

Geoff: Yes, we definitely do want to have scientific instruments on the Zephyr to learn about Venus. I didn’t have time to talk about the science on the rover, but we currently do have a project that’s developing the high-temperature instruments to send on the rover.

What do you think you would find in the higher, currently unreadable frequencies? Could the radio scope use materials from the Moon or will everything have to be brought from Earth?

Saptarshi: We will be observing the early Universe, before and during the formation of First Stars in the Universe. Hopefully it will help us understand the open questions in the Universe like inflation, dark energy and dark matter, etc. This is a lot of exciting science that LCRT will enable!

Currently our plan is to bring everything from Earth to make this telescope on the Moon. If the technology to use materials present on the Moon improves by then, maybe we could use that too.

What will the [Lunar Crater Lunar Telescope’s] mesh be made of?

Saptarshi: Currently we are focusing on doing this study and selecting the best material for the mesh. The only requirement is it should be conducting, lightweight and survives in space. My guess is we will be selecting space-grade aluminum, since it has the best combination of properties.

Arthur Clarke talked about a 10m-to-km longwave telescope in Imperial Earth, and argued that solar wind as well as terrestrial ionospheric interference was a serious problem. Is there an argument to do this on an outer-system moon instead of lunar far-side, even though it’s obviously a lot harder?

Saptarshi: The far side of the Moon nicely shields the telescope from Earth-based noise sources and even Earth-orbiting satellites. So it is not clear what advantage going away from the Earth-Moon system will give us. Moreover, Jupiter and Saturn are strong noise sources in these wavelength, hence we would like to also stay away from the larger planets. Therefore, a crater on the Moon is a perfect place to house such a telescope since it also gives us some protection from other solar system noise sources like the Sun, Jupiter, etc.

What is your opinion of SpaceX and Elon Musk’s goal to send people to Mars? How realistic are his goals?

Kathy: I’m impressed, overall. He is a risk taker and unafraid of failure in order to move the dial forward for future space exploration. I think it’s too early to determine how realistic they are. Time will tell.

Geoff: Sending people to Mars (and bringing them home again!) is a hard project. I love it! I hope he succeeds.

We hear Artemis is planned to take astronauts to Moon in 2024. Do you think sometime in future we will have settlements on the moon?

Kathy: That’s a long-term plan, but much needs to be determined first, especially international cooperation.

Geoff: It’s certainly possible! We have research stations in Antarctica; why not a research settlement on the moon? A lot of NIAC projects are aimed at learning how to use the resources of the moon to form the raw materials needed to make such a settlement.

What would your respective probes look like, if by the time it goes up a 9-m, 100-t class platform like SpaceX’s Starship is available and (as hopefully promised) cheaper than F9? What is the “LUVOIR-15” of Venus landers or far-side dishes?

Saptharshi: Starship would be a perfect platform for LCRT! It has significantly more carrying capacity than what we need for LCRT!

Have the origami and other space-saving shapes been used in previous space missions?

Kathy: Starshade (in development) and PUFFER (a flat folding robot) are two that come to mind. NASA engineers use origami because of the hidden geometry in the folds. There are many people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and other Centers designing novel origami creations so it can solve a big problem using art and science—how to pack the most within a spacecraft with the minimal possible volume?

What would you most like to learn from a rover on Venus?

Geoff: There is so much we don't know about Venus! It is like the Earth in some ways, but different in others. So, we want to learn how (and why) it's different, and how it's the same. Earth's geology, for example, is shaped by the process of plate tectonics. Venus doesn't seem to have plate tectonics-why not?

Another thing I'd like to know is more about the most ancient rocks on Venus. Scientists now think that in the very early solar system, Venus was not as hot, and it even had an ocean. Are any rocks on the surface old enough that we can learn more about this ancient environment of Venus? How Earthlike was it?

In there a reason why rocks come to the moon and makes craters?

Saptarshi: Meteoroids and micro-meteorites (smaller meteoroids) are constant bombarding all planetary bodies in the Solar System, including Earth. When they hit Earth, they burn up due to Earth's thick atmosphere. But the Moon doesn't have an atmosphere, so they strike the surface of the Moon and cause craters, called "impact craters". Interestingly, the lunar side facing away from Earth has significantly more impact craters than the side facing Earth. This shows that Earth is also protecting Moon from such meteoroids. Similarly Moon must be protecting Earth too!

Can you send a moon rover to the moon?

Kathy: NIAC has a Phase III study in development that hopes to do just that, and it's autonomous. See: William 'Red' Whittaker's study, Robotic Technologies Enabling the Exploration of Lunar Pits.