Advances in Space Travel and Exploration Trend in Recent Weeks

Posted On March 5, 2021 By Nicole Hopper

With NASA's Perseverance Rover recently landing on Mars, space and space travel have been hot topics recently. In addition to the regular updates coming in from the rover, SpaceX also continued testing its Starship prototypes this week, and the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) introduced a new program to explore the potential for manufacturing capabilities on the moon.

The first high-resolution, color image sent back by the Hazard Cameras on the underside NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18
The first high-resolution, color image sent back by the Hazard Cameras on the underside NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18. Photo and caption courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Updates from the Red Planet

By now you've likely already seen the video and read the news of NASA’s largest, most advanced rover to reach Mars, so we won't bore you with a recap of last month's events. However, just this week NASA presented a list of firsts accomplished by the rover over the past few weeks. Since landing, the Mars rover has gone through checks on every system and subsystem, sent back thousands of images from Jezero Crater, and is expected to make its first drives in the coming days.

During its descent to the Red Planet, Perseverance captured a high-resolution image and sent back a stop-motion movie of its descent. Unique to this rover, the majority of Perseverance's cameras capture images in color, including views from the front and rear of the rover that have been transmitted back to Earth. The rover also recorded and sent back the first ever audio recording of sounds from Mars' Jezero Crater. Listen for a slight Martian breeze.

SpaceX's Almost Successful Vertical Landing Attempt

From NASA to SpaceX, another space giant focused on exploring Mars, the aerospace manufacturer concluded its third test of the Starship prototype this week. What started off as a successful trip, taking off and successfully landing on its launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas after about a 6-minute flight, the SN10 unfortunately exploded minutes later.

Starship SN10 takes off from SpaceX's test facility
The Starship SN10 takes off from SpaceX's test facility for its 32,000-ft. test flight. Photo courtesy: nbcnews.com

The short flight was the third vertical landing test of the Starship design, being developed with the goal to carry humans and cargo to the moon and then Mars in the coming years. Despite the unfortunate ending, this week’s test flight was the most successful to date, coming closest to achieving a safe touchdown compared to the SN8 and SN9, which didn’t achieve successful vertical landings and exploded immediately upon touchdown.

SpaceX's development of the Starship rockets is different than traditional aerospace development that involves multi-month reflection, analysis, and re-development after every test. Instead, the company has been focused on rapid iteration and prototyping, manufacturing and assembling prototypes simultaneously and making small changes as it goes. With plans to complete an orbital flight by the end of 2021 and carry humans to the moon by 2023, the Starship is at the center of SpaceX's mission to make human space travel more affordable and routine.

From Starship to Starlink

In more SpaceX news, the company also launched another 60 Starlink satellites the day after the Starship test, adding to the more than 1,000 satellites already making up the existing constellation. This is the fifth launch of the satellites this year, and 20th overall.

Starlink is SpaceX's communication satellite network being built to provide private Internet access on Earth. Earlier this year, SpaceX opened Starlink pre-orders to anyone in current or planned service areas through a reservation system and refundable up-front deposit.

The company plans to continue these launches throughout the year, working to get the constellation to a point where it can serve customers over a much larger portion of the globe. While it’s expected to reach broad coverage by the time the constellation reaches 1,200 satellites, the company plans to launch around 30,000 satellites total to fully build out network capacity and speed.

Artist rendering of manufacturing on the moon
Artist rendering of manufacturing on the moon. Photo courtesy: spacenews.com

Made in Space

Rounding out our list of space innovations over the past month is a cool new research project from the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency called for companies in the space industry to share information about their capability to manufacture large structures on the moon.

DARPA is looking to "develop foundational materials, processes, and designs needed to realize in-space manufacturing of large, precise and resilient Defense Department systems," said Bill Carter, program manager at DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office.

As enterprises like SpaceX and others continue to pursue access to space, transportation of materials and equipment stands as a main obstacle to overcome. So, the federal government has started preparing for the eventual need for off-Earth manufacturing facilities to maximize efficiency and reduce the payload on rockets.

DARPA's new program, dubbed Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D), will work with companies that have expertise in this area to explore lunar manufacturing technologies including high precision mechanical structures, large solar arrays, large radio frequency reflector antennas, and segmented infrared reflective optics. The program will explore new materials and manufacturing technologies and new mass-efficiency system designs.

Manufacturing on the moon sounds pretty cool to us. Who knows, maybe one day we'll even see a Protolabs factory in space. And, we'll be following these exciting space advancements closely as we support companies like Lockheed Martin and NASA in their quest to explore the red planet.

Eye on Innovation is a monthly look at new technology, products, and trends.