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Gerstenmaier warns against ending space station program prematurely – SpaceNews

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WASHINGTON — The former head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, now working as a consultant to SpaceX, said he welcomes greater commercial activity in low Earth orbit but cautioned against ending the International Space Station prematurely.

Bill Gerstenmaier discussed the importance of the ISS, from a technical and policy standpoint, during a virtual town hall meeting Sept. 5 by the Los Angeles-Las Vegas Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). His appearance was one of his first public comments on space topics since retiring from NASA in late 2019, several months after being reassigned from the position of associate administrator for human exploration and operations and more than four decades after joining the agency.

At the AIAA town hall meeting, he outlined the benefits of the ISS program, from science and technology development to the setting of standards for future exploration efforts. The station, he added, has also been a catalyst for commercial activity, creating demand for launch services for cargo and crew and hosting a growing number of private activities and facilities.

While NASA has discussed plans to eventually transition from the ISS to private space stations in LEO, he warned against doing so too quickly. “The push will be strong to end ISS and free up resources, predominantly dollars, for exploration. I think that’s a false trade,” he said. “ISS is still playing a very strong role in U.S. leadership.”

He argued it would take time for companies to develop the markets that can sustain private activities to the point where commercial stations are viable. “ISS is enabling the U.S. private sector companies to explore and develop commercial markets in low Earth orbit. This is going to take time,” he said. “This effort is actually critical, I believe, to establishing and making exploration sustainable into the future.”

“We don’t want to do an Apollo: a rush to a single objective and then have nothing left,” he continued. “We need to build infrastructure, leave pieces behind that the private sector can use, as well as the government, to move forward.”

Gerstenmaier said he didn’t know how long such a transition from the ISS to private facilities would take, but didn’t think there was a firm deadline for ending the station. “I don’t know that there’s a hard date where the station needs to be retired,” he said. “I think there will be probably a push to retire the station with the idea that you’re going to free up funds for exploration. That’s what I described to you as a false choice.”

NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, released in early 2018, proposed ending federal funding of the ISS in 2025 as part of a LEO commercialization initiative. That proposal faced strong opposition in Congress, and NASA has not proposed a similar deadline for the station in subsequent budget requests. Past engineering studies have found that the ISS should be able to operate through at least 2028.

Gerstenmaier said it would take time for companies to explore markets for LEO activities, noting that both tourism and pharmaceutical research appeared promising. It was important, he added, to give more industry sectors access to the ISS to see how they can make use of the space environment in their fields. “That’s the heart of the innovation that has to occur,” he said. “I don’t think I can predict where those areas are, but I think our job is to expose the world, get more people to space, let them understand what we’re seeing and understand how we’re seeing it, and turn them free to figure out how to creatively use it.”

That innovation, he said, is needed to help stimulate the commercial spaceflight industry despite the success of SpaceX’s Demo-2 commercial crew mission to the station this summer. “I think the transportation sector for crew still isn’t quite established yet,” he said. “I think we need to give that a little bit of time to mature and get ready.”

He did not discuss in his comments his reassignment from associate administrator for human exploration and operations to a special adviser in July 2019. He quietly retired from the agency late last year and, in February, became a consultant to SpaceX.

He declined to go into specifics about his work at SpaceX, but said there’s less difference between work at the company versus that at NASA than one might expect, at least from a technical standpoint.

“It’s interesting being on both sides,” he said. “The demands of human spaceflight are the same. The precision that we have to do every day to make sure our crews are safe, make sure the hardware works, are absolutely the same. There’s no forgiveness for mistakes or being lazy or not sharing. You have to be 100% focused. That’s what we’re working on at SpaceX: how do we transition and get ready to really establish a transportation system that normal people would be willing to use.”

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Salty lake, ponds may be gurgling beneath South Pole on Mars – iNFOnews

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This Aug. 26, 2003 image made available by NASA shows Mars photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope on the planet’s closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. A network of salty ponds may be gurgling beneath Mars’ South Pole alongside a large underground lake, raising the prospect of tiny, swimming Martian life. Italian scientists reported their findings Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 two years after identifying what they believed to be a large subglacial lake.
Image Credit: AP, NASA

September 29, 2020 – 5:30 AM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A network of salty ponds may be gurgling beneath Mars’ South Pole alongside a large underground lake, raising the prospect of tiny, swimming Martian life.

Italian scientists reported their findings Monday, two years after identifying what they believed to be a large buried lake. They widened their coverage area by a couple hundred miles, using even more data from a radar sounder on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

In the latest study appearing in the journal Nature Astronomy, the scientists provide further evidence of this salty underground lake, estimated to be 12 miles to 18 miles (20 kilometres to 30 kilometres) across and buried 1 mile (1.5 kilometres) beneath the icy surface.

Even more tantalizing, they’ve also identified three smaller bodies of water surrounding the lake. These ponds appear to be of various sizes and are separate from the main lake.

Roughly 4 billion years ago, Mars was warm and wet, like Earth. But the red planet eventually morphed into the barren, dry world it remains today.

The research team led by Roma Tre University’s Sebastian Emanuel Lauro used a method similar to what’s been used on Earth to detect buried lakes in the Antarctic and Canadian Arctic. They based their findings on more than 100 radar observations by Mars Express from 2010 to 2019; the spacecraft was launched in 2003.

All this potential water raises the possibility of microbial life on — or inside — Mars. High concentrations of salt are likely keeping the water from freezing at this frigid location, the scientists noted. The surface temperature at the South Pole is an estimated minus 172 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 113 degrees Celsius), and gets gradually warmer with depth.

These bodies of water are potentially interesting biologically and “future missions to Mars should target this region,” the researchers wrote.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020

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Buried lakes of liquid water discovered on Mars – BBC News

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Three underground lakes have been detected near the south pole of Mars.

Scientists also confirmed the existence of a fourth lake – the presence of which was hinted at in 2018.

Liquid water is vital for biology, so the finding will be of interest to researchers studying the potential for life elsewhere in the Solar System.

But the lakes are also thought to be extremely salty, which could make it difficult for any microbial life to survive in them.

Mars’ thin atmosphere means that the presence of liquid water on the surface is a near-impossibility. But water could remain liquid below ground.

The latest discovery was made using data from a radar instrument on the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Mars Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since December 2003.

In 2018, researchers used data from the Marsis radar to report signs of a 20km-wide subsurface lake located 1.5km under Mars’ south polar layered deposits, a thick polar cap formed by layers of ice and dust.

However, that finding was based on 29 observations collected by Marsis between 2012 and 2015. Now, a team including many of the same scientists from the 2018 study have analysed a much bigger dataset of 134 radar profiles gathered between 2010 and 2019.

“Not only did we confirm the position, extent and strength of the reflector from our 2018 study, but we found three new bright areas,” said co-author Elena Pettinelli from Roma Tre University in Italy.

“The main lake is surrounded by smaller bodies of liquid water, but because of the technical characteristics of the radar, and of its distance from the Martian surface, we cannot conclusively determine whether they are interconnected.”

The team borrowed a technique commonly used in radar sounder investigations of sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica, Canada and Greenland, adapting the method to analyse the data from Marsis.

“The interpretation that best reconciles all the available evidence is that the high intensity reflections (from Mars) are coming from extended pools of liquid water,” said co-author Sebastian Lauro, also from Roma Tre University.

There’s not enough heat at these depths to melt the ice, so scientists believe the liquid water must contain high concentrations of dissolved salts. These chemical salts (different to the stuff we sprinkle on our chips) can significantly lower water’s freezing point.

In fact, recent experiments have shown that water with dissolved salts of magnesium and calcium perchlorate (a chemical compound containing chlorine bound to four oxygens) can remain liquid at temperatures of -123C.

“These experiments have demonstrated that brines can persist for geologically significant periods of time even at the temperatures typical of the Martian polar regions (considerably below the freezing temperature of pure water),” said co-author Graziella Caprarelli, from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.

“Therefore we think that any process of formation and persistence of sub-ice water beneath the ice polar caps requires the liquid to have high salinity.”

Whether life could survive in such conditions depends on just how salty these Martian pools are. On Earth, only very specific types of microbes, known as halophiles, can survive in the saltiest bodies of water.

Roberto Orosei, chief scientist on the Marsis experiment, said: “While the existence of a single sub-glacial lake could be attributed to exceptional conditions such as the presence of a volcano under the ice sheet, the discovery of an entire system of lakes implies that their formation process is relatively simple and common, and that these lakes have probably existed for much of Mars’ history.

“For this reason, they could still retain traces of any life forms that could have evolved when Mars had a dense atmosphere, a milder climate and the presence of liquid water on the surface, similar to the early Earth.”

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INRS Researchers Develop a New Membraneless Fuel Cell – Canada NewsWire

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Conventional fuel cells are ubiquitous. They power electric cars on today’s roads and were part of the computers used in the 1969 Apollo moon landing. These fuel cells lose voltage as they are used and eventually stop working. This happens because alcohol molecules (methanol or ethanol) in the fuel cell’s anode compartment crossover the membrane separating them from the cathode compartment. Oxygen molecules in the cathode compartment react with the alcohol, causing a drop in voltage.

Numerous scientists have unsuccessfully tried to develop a membrane that stops alcohol molecules from passing through it. Professor Mohamed Mohamedi, a lead author of the study published on September 8, took another tack: developing a fuel cell without a membrane. 

His novel solution costs less and requires fewer steps to manufacture, but it fails to address a key challenge. “When the membrane is removed, the methanol or ethanol reacts with the oxygen, just like in conventional fuel cells. To prevent voltage drops, we had to develop selective electrodes in the cathode compartment. These electrodes, designed by doctoral student Juan Carlos Abrego-Martinez, remain inactive in the presence of alcohol molecules but are sensitive to the oxygen that generates electricity,” Professor Mohamedi explains. He notes another unique property of this membraneless fuel cell: it uses oxygen from the air around it.

From Model to Prototype

The first step the researchers took in building a working prototype was to run numerical simulations created by Alonso Moreno Zuria, INRS postdoctoral fellow and a lead author of the study. Through computer modelling, the team tested different configurations of selective electrodes in the fuel cell. “Conventional fuel cells are like sandwiches, with the membrane in the middle. We chose instead to work on a single-layer design. We had to determine how to arrange and space the electrodes to maximize fuel use while keeping ambient air oxygen concentration in mind,” says Professor Mohamedi.

Once the researchers settled on a configuration, they tested a prototype that became a proof of concept. The membraneless fuel cell powered an LED for four hours using only 234 microlitres of methanol. The researchers want to optimize the fuel cell so it can use ethanol, a greener fuel that can be produced from biomass and agricultural waste. Ethanol also provides more power per equivalent unit of volume.

The team expects the fuel cell to power portable electronics such as mobile phones and microsystems such as air pollution sensors. Unlike conventional batteries that store electricity and must be recharged, fuel cells continue to produce energy as long as fuel is available. “This energy supply method is particularly effective when recharging is not possible. Imagine being in the middle of the desert, without electricity. You could recharge your mobile phone using a small capsule of ethanol that you connect to the device,” says Professor Mohamedi.

This pioneering technology has already attracted industry attention even though the research team is only at the prototype stage. 

About the study
The researchers received financial support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Quebec Centre for Advanced Materials (QCAM), the UNESCO/MATECSS chair, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT, Mexico), and Científicos Mexicanos en el Extranjero.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2020.110045

About INRS

INRS is a university dedicated exclusively to graduate level research and training. Since its creation in 1969, INRS has played an active role in Quebec’s economic, social, and cultural development and is ranked first for research intensity in Quebec and second in Canada. INRS is made up of four interdisciplinary research and training centres in Quebec City, Montreal, Laval, and Varennes, with expertise in strategic sectors: Eau Terre Environnement, Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications, Urbanisation Culture Société, and Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie. The INRS community includes more than 1,400 students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members, and staff.

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SOURCE Institut National de la recherche scientifique (INRS)

For further information: Audrey-Maude Vézina, Service des communications de l’INRS, 418 254-2156, [email protected]

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