NASA Tests Space Concrete for Future Mars Habitats


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NASA is looking toward a future when humans could visit Mars for an extended period, and Elon Musk is promising to send people there in the next decade. Whenever humans do set foot on Mars, they’re going to need someplace to hang their hat (or spacesuit helmet). Concrete could potentially allow explorers to build structures quickly and easily, assuming it sets correctly without Earth gravity. NASA has conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to assess the strength of concrete mixed in space. 

Scientists believe concrete could be an ideal material for building on other worlds because it’s durable, offers protection from radiation, and it may be possible to make it using materials present on the moon and Mars. Being able to manufacture building materials at your destination (known as in-situ resources) makes missions cheaper and easier to design because you don’t have to launch as much mass from Earth. 

However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the molecular structure of concrete here on Earth. Concrete is a mixture of sand and gravel with lime or silicate (cement powder). As the cement dissolves in water, it forms crystal complexes that link together the aggregate to make a solid structure. The process of mixing and building with concrete is well established on Earth, but we don’t know how microgravity could affect it. Do we need to modify the ratios? Add additional materials? That’s what the ISS experiment aims to find out. 

ISS concrete above and Earth concrete below.

The experiment, known as Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), is the first time concrete has been mixed outside of Earth’s gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS mixed tricalcium silicate and water in varying amounts to create a concrete paste. The astronauts added alcohol to some of the packets to stop the hydration process at set intervals as well. A separate experiment used a centrifuge simulated lunar and Martian gravity on the samples as they mixed. 

The experiment confirms that concrete can harden in microgravity, which is a good thing. That means we can build structures with concrete outside of Earth’s gravity. The primary difference is an increase in pores compared with concrete mixed on Earth, and that could reduce the material’s strength. However, lower gravity on the moon or Mars would also put it under less strain. It may be possible to develop different binders that improve the strength of lunar or Martian concrete, and that may even lead to better concrete here on Earth.

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NASA Astronaut Accused of World’s First ‘Space Crime’ Denies Allegations


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Decorated US astronaut Anne McClain had been accused of committing the first crimes in space. McClain is going through an acrimonious divorce and her spouse, Summer Worden, has alleged that McClain committed financial improprieties by accessing financial records while serving aboard the ISS (International Space Station) and has filed a complaint with the FTC and NASA’s Office of Inspector General, accusing McClain of identity theft and improperly accessing records.

The claims of financial harm are now being investigated by NASA, but McClain is strongly denying any intent or wrongdoing:

The question of jurisdiction in space is a complex one. The five space agencies that operate the space station — US, Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have agreements in place to hammer out issues that might occur while aboard, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge, this is the first time there have been allegations of any kind of illegal activity occurring in space (at least, as far as something an astronaut might personally do). The New York Times points out that with the advent of space tourism, these kinds of questions are going to be raised on a more regular basis. What does legal discovery look like, for example, when it impacts a NASA network? In any kind of scenario in which individuals from more than one nation are involved in a dispute, how should said dispute be adjudicated, and under what auspices?

These sorts of questions are esoteric at the moment because we have no serious space-tourism industry. At present, seven space tourists have made eight spaceflights. From 2001-2009, the Russian Space Agency provided space flights, but they ceased doing so after 2009 because the expanded crew capabilities of the ISS require the Soyuz to carry more passengers to and from the station. On June 7, 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private astronauts to return to the ISS using either SpaceX’s Dragon2 module or Boeing’s Starliner. Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch an inflatable space habitat, the BA 330, into LEO by 2022.

McClain was scheduled to take part in the first all-female spacewalk earlier this year, but she had to back out due to a spacesuit sizing issue (NASA has two medium-size spacesuit available on the ISS, but only one was properly outfitted for spacewalking and it was already scheduled to be in-use by her astronaut partner). NASA opted to change the spacewalk roster rather than spend hours fitting the other suit for simultaneous operation. The complaint filed against McClain accuses her of identity theft but acknowledges that funds had not been moved out of the account.

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Aerospace Firm Shows Off Giant Inflatable Space Habitat


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Most of the spacecraft in science fiction are ridiculously spacious, but real life is much less luxurious. The International Space Station (ISS) has just 388 cubic meters of habitable space, and future deep-space assignments could have astronauts serving much longer tours of duty. NASA has partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation to explore ways to make spacecraft a bit less cramped, and the company has now completed a prototype inflatable habitat module with almost as much living space as the entire ISS. 

NASA originally funded the NextSTEP-2 program to develop technologies for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway station and a journey to Mars. The current plan is to make the Lunar Gateway a smaller modular station that will initially have just a small life support area and docking for lunar landers. The inflatable habitat shown off at Johnson Space Center this week could eventually add a lot more living areas to the Gateway and other missions. 

This isn’t NASA’s first look at inflatable habitats. The agency partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to deploy a small inflatable prototype module to the ISS called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The 16 cubic meter volume of BEAM is a far cry from the Sierra Nevada mockup, though. 

The habitat measures approximately 26 by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters) with a total internal volume of 984 cubic feet (300 cubic meters). That’s a third of the total pressurized volume of the ISS, and more than three-quarters of its habitable space. The multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, allowing NASA to send the entire module to space in a standard rocket like the Falcon Heavy, ULA’s upcoming Vulcan booster, or NASA’s own Space Launch System. 

Once in space, the module can expand into a three-level habitat with room for any necessary activities — Sierra Nevada Corporation doesn’t have a specific purpose in mind, but the prototype is outfitted with a greenhouse, scientific facilities, a gym, and more.  

Sierra Nevada hopes to impress NASA and other potential partners with its initial design, but a space-ready habitat could be altered as needed. With all the changes to the proposed Lunar Gateway, the company isn’t sure when or if NASA will want a large inflatable habitat module. The timeline for sending humans to Mars is still very preliminary as well. Sierra Nevada isn’t building Mars-specific habitats until NASA defines mission parameters. However, an inflatable habitat like this could make a months-long trip to Mars much less stressful for the crew. 

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Cryptographic ICE Cube tests orbital cybersecurity protocols aboard the ISS – gpgmail


Encryption in space can be tricky. Even if you do everything right, a cosmic ray might come along and flip a bit, sabotaging the whole secure protocol. So if you can’t radiation-harden the computer, what can you do? European Space Agency researchers are testing solutions right now in an experiment running on board the ISS.

Cosmic radiation flipping bits may sound like a rare occurrence, and in a way it is. But satellites and spacecraft are out there for a long time and it only takes one such incident to potentially scuttle a whole mission. What can you do if you’re locked out of your own satellite? At that point it’s pretty much space junk. Just wait for it to burn up.

Larger, more expensive missions like GPS satellites and interplanetary craft use special hardened computers that are carefully proofed against cosmic rays and other things that go bump in the endless night out there. But these bespoke solutions are expensive and often bulky and heavy; if you’re trying to minimize costs and space to launch a constellation or student project, hardening isn’t always an option.

“We’re testing two related approaches to the encryption problem for non rad-hardened systems,” explained ESA’s Lukas Armborst in a news release. To keep costs down and hardware recognizable, the team is using a Raspberry Pi Zero board, one of the simplest and lowest-cost full-fledged computers you can buy these days. It’s mostly unmodified, just coated to meet ISS safety requirements.

It’s the heart of the Cryptography International Commercial Experiments Cube, or Cryptographic ICE Cube, or CryptIC. The first option they’re pursuing is a relatively traditional software one: hard-coded backup keys. If a bit gets flipped and the current encryption key is no longer valid, they can switch to one of those.

“This needs to be done in a secure and reliable way, to restore the secure link very quickly,” said Armborst. It relies on “a secondary fall-back base key, which is wired into the hardware so it cannot be compromised. However, this hardware solution can only be done for a limited number of keys, reducing flexibility.”

If you’re expecting one failure per year and a five-year mission, you could put 20 keys and be done with it. But for longer missions or higher exposures, you might want something more robust. That’s the other option, an “experimental hardware reconfiguration approach.”

“A number of microprocessor cores are inside CryptIC as customizable, field-programmable gate arrays, rather than fixed computer chips,” Armborst explained. “These cores are redundant copies of the same functionality. Accordingly, if one core fails then another can step in, while the faulty core reloads its configuration, thereby repairing itself.”

In other words, the encryption software would be running in parallel with itself and one part would be ready to take over and serve as a template for repairs should another core fail due to radiation interference.

A CERN-developed radiation dosimeter is flying inside the enclosure as well, measuring the exposure the device has over the next year of operation. And a set of flash memory units are sitting inside to see which is the most reliable in orbital conditions. Like many experiments on the ISS, this one has many purposes. The encryption tests are set to begin shortly and we’ll know next summer how the two methods fared.


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