Peter Diamandis, chairman & CEO of X-Prize Foundation, discusses the price improvement curve towards affordable space travel. He explains a new X-Prize idea for improving technology around beamed power propulsion, where energy is beamed to a rocket and the rocket converts the energy. See more below from an interview with Diamandis.
From the category archives:
Now that hybrid cars are standard, an aviation expert argues that it’s time to put hybrid engines in the air.
Alternative energy advances have been remarkable. However, new technology, processes and products must be evaluated against the expense of bringing them to market. With a difficult economy, limited budgets and engineering resources, airplane manufacturers find it much more difficult to invest in developing new technology during tough economic times. Unfortunately, this means innovation can be delayed, perhaps when we need it most.
Innovation is sometimes inspired by incremental operational or cost benefits. It may also come as a result of a significant outside threat. Recently, several political, economic and industrial factors have combined in a manner that threatens aviation gasoline’s long term viability. If innovation in aviation can progress, alternative energy may offer an answer to the potential halt of aviation gas production. Will these offerings be ready and broadly available in time? Are petroleum-based solutions going to share the stage with new biofuels? And, what about the high profile electric and hybrid technology that has swept through the automobile industry? Can aviation benefit from that learning curve and make a faster transition?
Electric motors are highly efficient, robust and do not lose power at higher density altitudes. They are also quiet and emission free. Perhaps most important for aviation, electric motors are relatively light weight. A 200-horsepower electric motor weighs only one-third that of an equivalent horsepower internal combustion engine. These features are certainly compelling. The critical question is how to efficiently get energy to the electric motor. For that, you need a battery.
The widely held perception is that batteries are heavy—very heavy—toxic, rupture easily, short circuit, catch fire, and are expensive. Research advances have eliminated many of these critical issues, at least in part. It is true that some battery configurations (and equivalent “fuel cell” technologies) are highly toxic. However, this is not universally the case. The baseline lithium ion battery chemistry is a recyclable salt, with low environmental impact. Recent advances in the internal configuration of the battery, particularly the layers, or separator, provides for a lighter, more efficient and sturdier battery. Together with new embedded battery management systems, concerns regarding energy spikes, thermal runaways and potential failure and fire have been greatly diminished. Still, are batteries ready for broad, mainstream airplane applications? Aren’t weight and cost still a concern?
While new configurations and systems are often discussed, and eventually flown in the experimental category, many do not emerge to the larger certified marketplace. For many pilots, battery-powered flight remains merely a curiosity without practical application. A careful analysis of mission profiles and typical general aviation aircraft aerodynamics indicates the current battery energy density is about half of what it needs to be. Projections range from three to five years, perhaps more, before sufficient energy density is reached for a true battery-only propulsion system. Like energy density, battery cost is also a significant impediment to broad acceptance. Unit cost and operational cost effectiveness remain critical goals for mainstream market acceptance. But perhaps the largest barrier is the rigorous FAA certification process. Innovators with a goal of mainstream market acceptance view this process as the ultimate feasibility test.
Given the remarkable benefits and acknowledged limitations of electric propulsion, is there a way forward? The “first generation” answer may be provided with the energy balance of hybrid propulsion. As battery technology matures with energy density and cost improvements, the “second generation” propulsion technology may be all-electric.
To provide for the longer endurance mission requirements of the largest aviation market segments, a hybrid solution could include a small jet-fuel powered auxiliary power unit. Much like a hybrid automobile, this solution provides enhanced efficiency and reduced cost, while avoiding the expense and weight of an all-electric battery powered aircraft. The benefits of electric propulsion are not lost, but supplemented, with the high energy density of jet fuel.
Charlie Johnson, the former president of Cessna, “The time to accelerate incorporation of this new hybrid technology has arrived. Aviation is a vital market that will benefit from the environmentally friendly, lower cost, more efficient and higher performing aircraft.”
Time is of the essence. A slow, pondering review has its risks. If actual flight tests prove out the theoretical projections, it appears that hybrid cost and performance features will be very attractive to the pilot-owner consumer. Much like the success of the Toyota Prius, the manufacturer that is first to offer a mainstream hybrid aircraft model may have an important market identity advantage.
Manufacturers are understandably cautious when it comes to adopting new technologies. Thorough, rigorous evaluation of each new innovation is an absolute necessity. New technology providers should work closely with major manufacturers and the FAA to ensure that the mandate of safety is never compromised. However, we must not hesitate to face the challenge before us. Too much is at stake. The development of electric hybrid technology will be expensive and time consuming. Hybrid technology has reached an inflection point where execution is now possible. All will benefit. Stakeholders from every corner will need to participate, collaborate, and invest—this innovation needs to make it through the gauntlet.
George E. Bye is a general aviation entrepreneur and an airline transport pilot with over 4,000 flying hours. Mr. Bye is also an engineer and a former Air Force pilot who served in Desert Storm. He is CEO of Bye Energy, Inc., based in Denver, Colorado. Bye Energy is a technology innovator currently collaborating with other alternative energy providers to bring new energy technologies to general aviation.
Warp six, Mr. Scott.
Whether it’s to colonize new worlds, cavort with the Klingons, or strip-mine unobtainium, many people blithely assume that our descendants will go to the stars.
The well-known problem with this promising scenario is that the stars are immensely far away. Consider this: The fastest vehicle ever piloted by humans was the Apollo 10 command module. In May, 1969, it returned from the moon in a mere three days, plummeting earthward at a blistering seven miles per second. But cosmically speaking, the moon is cheek-by-jowl with our planet. A jaunt to Proxima Centauri, the nearest other star, would take 110,000 years at seven miles per second. You should hope for decent onboard food.
That undoubtedly sounds discouraging for space travel, but you might expect that our space-faring progeny will engineer rockets faster than a Saturn V. However, what they can’t do, at least according to Albert Einstein’s physics, is break the universe’s ultimate speed limit: the speed of light. So interstellar trips will inevitably take many years—at least as measured by the society that launches them. (The crew may age less rapidly thanks to special relativity, but what good is that if everything left behind becomes fossilized ?)
This is a long-standing problem for sci-fi authors who can’t afford to slow their stories while protagonists play Sudoku (or just sleep) for decades or centuries between one alien encounter and the next. So writers have peppered their yarns with plausible-sounding schemes for quickly zipping around the galaxy.
Two ever-popular schemes from sci-fi are hyperdrive and warp drive. Both beat the speed of light by manipulating space.
When you shift your rocket into hyperdrive, it makes a lane change and travels through “hyperspace”—an imaginary alternative pathway that comprises a geometric shortcut to your destination. When Han Solo barrels around the empire in Star Wars, he’s using technology that is presumably as conventional a transport medium for him as the wheel is for us. Stargate also invokes hyperdrive, as did Babylon 5. A slightly different flavor of hyperspace called jump drive was used in Battlestar Galactica and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
But is hyperspace just hype? Could there really be shortcuts through space that would mimic this sci-fi trope? There might be, and physicists call them wormholes. These possible pathways to other parts of the cosmos seem to work on blackboards. But actually constructing a wormhole and keeping it open long enough to slip a rocket through seems to require either enormous amounts of energy, or the use of something called “exotic matter,” a hypothesized material that has negative energy, if you can picture that. To make exotic matter would take incredibly large quantities of ordinary energy, and so this is one material that makes even unobtainium seem prosaic. Given the difficulties with wormholes, both theoretical and practical, it’s unclear whether a real-life version of hyperdrive can ever be achieved, so it remains problematic. For sci-fi authors, of course, “problematic” is still better than “forbidden by physics.”
The most iconic FTL-travel scheme remains Star Trek’s warp drive, which works by distorting space, compressing it in front of the ship, and expanding it behind, thereby bringing you more quickly to your destination without having to cross swords with Einstein. Think about it: As you read these lines, you’re moving at tremendous velocity away from galaxies that are billions of light-years distant, but not because you’re on a hi-tech rocket. Your apparent speed is actually the universe expanding the space between you and those distant nebulae.
Warp drive works similarly—by enlarging the space behind your spacecraft and collapsing it in front. You literally shrink the distance to your destination, thereby avoiding the inconvenience of building ultra-high-speed rockets.
When Captain Kirk is alerted to troubles in the Gamma Quadrant, he gets Scotty to crank up the Enterprise’s cruise control to many times light speed. The Enterprise accomplishes this with matter-antimatter engines, mediated by dilithium crystals (whatever those are). How these manage to warp space is unclear, but then again, so is a lot of what goes on in Star Trek. But if you really want to distort space, you need to tow around either a black hole, or some incredibly massive, rotating objects able to drag space-time around like a teaspoon in a pot of syrup. Neither seems practical.
Faster-than-light travel has been invented because we want to send ourselves into space, and being confined for all time to the solar system is about as satisfying as the idea that you’ll never take your Maserati farther than the end of the driveway. But the universe isn’t obliged to make all our whims feasible, and FTL travel may be—like the perfect martini—little more than a nice idea.
What happens when you put five astronauts in a small ship for 500 days and fly them to Mars?
Ever since the dawn of the space age, we’ve been preparing for a red-planet mission. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, Europeans and Russians locked themselves into tiny capsules for hundreds of days at a time to simulate a Martian mission. Locations were selected for remoteness and desolation, whether that meant the Atacama desert in Chile or the iciest reaches of Canada.
Yet those extremes pale against Mars 500, a test that will begin in the middle of this year in Moscow, inside a warehouse on the campus of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. There, a crew of seven men will lock themselves inside a series of rooms no bigger than a tiny house for 520 days—the approximate amount of time a return trip to Mars would take, with a 30-day layover on the planet. If they last, each crew member will get a bounty, possibly upwards of $100,000. What are we hoping to learn from this exercise? And, really, why would anyone want to do that?
Think of Mars 500 as something like the original Real World, minus the sexual tension and booze, with a few details changed:
“This is the true story of seven strangers (three Europeans, three Russian cosmonauts in training, and one Chinese)…
…picked to live in a house (that looks like the lovechild of a Quonset hut and the International Space Station)…
…work together and have their lives taped (constantly, from fixed cameras. With doctors, engineers, and psychologists watching at all times)…
…to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real …”
From a technology standpoint, a manned Martian landing is not out of reach. It’s just a matter of committing the resources and solving the inherent problems. Yet all that work would be useless if the crew can’t accomplish the task, either mentally or physically. Proving they can is the main thrust of Mars 500.
We can point to examples that prove human beings can function in tight quarters for long periods—on submarines, in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, and for up to 438 days on the Mir space station. But the challenges of Mars 500 are unique.
To simulate the real-world experience of traveling to Mars, the crew won’t see any natural light for the duration. They won’t be able to shower. To communicate with loved ones or with mission control (in the next room) they’ll have to wait 20 minutes for a reply, because that’s how long, on average, a real-life telecom signal would take to travel to Earth and back.
“The risk of a serious incident is probably quite small,” says Dr. David Dinges, a renowned experimental psychologist and the designer of two experiments that the crew will participate in.
The simulator itself has three main cabins: a medical bay with a dining room; living quarters with a common room, kitchen and six tiny bedrooms; and a utility module with a gym, greenhouse, and restroom. On the outside they all look like large, shiny metal storage tanks; on the inside, they look like Soviet-era mobile homes, covered in wood veneer and equipped with cheap folding furniture. Each module is connected to the next by a narrow crawl tunnel. The Mars landing will be simulated by moving half the crew into a tiny “lander module.” They’ll emerge on the Martian surface—a sealed-in section of the warehouse facility—and step across concrete floors to perform mock scientific experiments.
The scientists running Mars 500 have already run through a 105-day isolation experiment, which ended in April, 2009, to test the viability of the facility and the scores of experiments that will be performed in the final, full-length run. But perhaps the most important test was the selection process—finding the right people for the job. The Mars 500 crew members were selected after weeks of psychological testing, which included the crew being dropped into the Russian wilderness for a three-day survival course. The goal was not to teach survival skills, but to dissect crew interactions.
I’ve always been curious about space,” says Oliver Knickel, one of the six volunteers who participated in the 105-day test mission. “But I wanted to see if I could complete this challenge. I wanted to see if I could cope. When I went in, I knew I wasn’t going to stop.” He and Cyrille Fournier beat out more than 5,600 applicants for the mission’s two European slots. They both fit the astronaut criteria—Knickel is a former paratrooper and engineer in the German Army; Fournier is an Air France captain.
According to Knickel, the experience was also surreal by the end, causing a feeling of dislocation—a blessing in disguise, as it would be hard to endure the experience if one actually felt the days passing with any normal rhythm. As he wrote in his mission log:
I have absolutely lost the feeling for … the total length of time we have spent inside the module now. It seems like three to four weeks, but the calendar proves that it has been 105 days and we will leave the facility later today.
Most important was motivation. The crew shared a selflessness that can be hard to grasp. As Fournier wrote in his log:
You need to realize that the isolation you are in is more valuable (in all senses) than the life you could have had outside, with your family and friends, with all of the possible good moments or potential important achievements you could have accomplished.
And afterward, Knickel says, the strangest facet of the experience was how the experience shaped his everyday life. It felt, for the first time, infinitely rich. He gave up 105 days, and that made each one that followed much sweeter.
The Mars 500 test run was a flying success—the men aboard became a remarkably cohesive, jovial group, and remain friends to this day. And yet the secret, perhaps, wasn’t in anything special to them—the sheer amount of work involved turned out to be a balm. “To be honest, the depression and isolation weren’t a problem,” says Knickel. “Being so busy made it impossible.”
From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., the crew was consumed with over 70 experiments, devised by scientists around the world. The final Mars 500 run, meanwhile, will feature 100. A few are technical—testing a chemical “nose” that looks like a minivac and sniffs out dangerous bacterial growths—but they are the exception.
Most of the trials will study the crew members themselves, through questionnaires, fitness tests, detailed biometrics, and daily blood and urine tests. The scientists want to understand not just whether someone might go insane—but exactly how, why and when, so that mission control might plan for it and prevent it with exercises in meditation, conflict resolution, or stress management.
The science straddles sci-fi and shrink’s chair. Many of the tests will plumb the mind-body connection, trying to determine, if, for example, detailed data about the crew’s mood correlates with any decreased cardiovascular fitness; or whether specially formulated nutrient diets—including things like tryptophan and Omega 3s—might be used to bolster moods. Another set of experiments is trying to determine whether such extreme isolation affects the immune system and hormone levels.
Other teams are mining the fuzzier realms of the mind. There will be reams of questionnaires, probing how the crew members perceive each other and how they interact; and how varying personal values—ranging from benevolence to power to tradition to hedonism—affect how well each crew member adapts to the situation.
The most pernicious threat is simply that the first thing to ebb in long periods of isolation is self-awareness. To that end, Dinges is using video cameras and facial-recognition algorithms to gauge and catalouge crew member’s emotions. His ultimate aim is to create robotic aides that will help people monitor and modulate their moods. In other words, a sensitive version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey—without the murderous impulses. (Dinges actually rigged his own computer with HAL’s voice, to get a taste of what that might be like.)
In a high-tech, 21st-century way, such exhaustive analysis of the crew members’ minds happens to parallel the motives of any other explorer. And, in a crucial way, Mars 500 is actually harder than a real expedition—precisely because once the destination is reached, the crew won’t have had the satisfaction of touching Mars. When it’s over, they’ll simply have endured something no one else ever has, just to see if they could do it while everyone else watched. Call it science, or performance art. Call it exploration.
This blog post was produced by GOOD for Beyond The Edge. GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward.
Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer and founder of Scaled Composites, the world’s most productive aerospace prototype development company, offers his insight into how space travel will have enormous improvements in safety and operating costs.
In Switzerland, two pioneers are coming closer and closer to a flight around the world powered only by solar energy.
It doesn’t make good business sense, physics sense, or much of any kind of sense, to try to fly an airplane on solar power. Not yet. With the state of the technology, and how relatively young the solar sector still is, such an endeavor would be considered quixotic today—let alone in 2003, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founders of Solar Impulse, announced they would design a solar-powered aircraft and fly it around the world. It would be a statement, they said, about our global dependence on fossil fuels and the untapped promise of burgeoning green technologies. The Swiss pilot-entrepreneurs were after “perpetual flight”: a plane that could climb to 9,000 feet and fly on the sun’s energy by day, then descend below cloud cover to lower altitudes, where it would cruise on stored battery power by night.
It was a long shot. And yet seven years of innovation later, the 70-person Solar Impulse team is nearing its goal. “We were intrigued by this notion of perpetual flight,” said Borschberg when visited in September in Solar Impulse’s massive hangar, situated smack in the middle of Düendorf Airfield, a Swiss military zone. “We wanted to be totally independent of any fuel.” Forget hybrid planes, or the biofuels fixating most of the sustainable aviation sector today; Piccard and Borschberg are purists. “No fuel, no CO2, no pollution. It could fly almost forever, assuming good weather,” Borschberg said of their invention.
By November of last year, test pilot Markus Scherdel—formerly of DLR German Aerospace, the NASA of Germany—was climbing into the cockpit of the completed prototype to taxi down the Dübendorf runway for the first time. Soon after that, Scherde was back in the cockpit, this time guiding the plane not just down the runway but up into the air for a series of successful “flea-hop” mini-flights over the tarmac. (You can watch a film of the event on YouTube.)
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA, as it is officially named, is a strange sight to behold. Resting under the sky-high ceiling of its hangar at Dubendorf, it looks fragile to the point of breakable. And no wonder: HB-SIA, comprised of a carbon skeleton covered in a flexible polycarbonate “skin,” weighs only about 1.5 tons, about as much as a small car. Its wings are so light that a single person can carry them. And when I tested both the pilot’s parachute and the detached nosepiece of a second prototype of the plane for weight, the parachute was heavier.
The HB-SIA carries a minuscule, one-person cockpit, and its generous 64-meter wingspan (which is comparable to that of an Airbus) makes it aerodynamically efficient and affords it a low sink rate, so that it needs very little energy to continue flying horizontally. This greater wingspan also creates maximum surface area for the aircraft’s 650 square feet of crystalline solar cells—all of which provide a maximum of about 40 kilowatts, or the power of a small scooter or motorcycle, and should get HB-SIA up to speeds of 45 miles per hour on sunny days.
While 45 miles per hour is practically the speed of light for a vehicle powered exclusively by the sun, it’s slow as molasses by today’s aviation standards (the average commercial plane cruises about 12 times faster), so each leg of HB-SIA’s transcontinental journey will take a full five days and five nights. Piccard and Borschberg still haven’t quite figured out how they’ll manage to take turns living in a one-man cockpit for such lengths; they’ve hired a yogi and a sleep specialist to help troubleshoot few human details like how not to fall asleep at the throttle, pass out from boredom, or die of thrombosis between takeoff and landing. As for energy storage, HB-SIA’s lithium batteries, which make up one quarter of the plane’s total weight, are two times lighter (but twice as efficient) as the batteries used in most computers, and have the storage capacity to power HB-SIA through eight hours of darkness each night.
Every last nut and bold in the plane, from its electric engines to it batteries to its solar cells, has been designed specifically for Solar Impulse, and that innovation has come at a price. Of Solar Impulse’s $100 million budget, about $55 million has been spent so far, primarily on technology development and salaries. Most of that funding has come in via principle partnerships with three corporations: Solvay, an international chemical and pharmaceutical group; Swiss watchmaker Omega; and Deutsche Bank.
Currently, HB-SIA is being dismantled at Dübendorf Airfield and prepared for transport to Payerne, where it will be reassembled and readied to execute a 36-hour, day-and-night test flight sometime this summer. That flight will put Piccard and Borschberg one step closer to their ultimate goal, a round-the-world-flight, which they hope to complete by 2012.
solarplane2It’s an enormous undertaking, but Piccard and Borschberg are the right men for the job. Piccard grew up attending Apollo 7 launches and hanging out with NASA astronauts. It’s nNo surprise that he went on to become a European champion in hang-glider aerobatics, be a part of the first- ever (two-man) team to balloon around the world, a lecturer at the Swiss Society for Medical Hypnosis, and ultimately decided to harness the power of the sun with Solar Impulse.
Borschberg, for his part, is an MIT graduate, an alumnus of the consulting firm McKinsey, and an entrepreneur. Biceps bulging from his company polo shirt, hair slicked back, he looks as though someone built him for maximum efficiency, just as he himself has built HB-SIA. “There is no space for doubt; there is just time in fact to be focused,” he told me flatly when I asked if he ever thought their mission might be a little audacious.
Confident and tenacious though they might be, Borschberg and Piccard are in no rush to make solar aviation commercially feasible. For now, they say, Solar Impulse’s flight around the world should be viewed like the Wright Brothers’ or Lindbergh’s first flights; the pioneers of aviation didn’t set out to deliver 150 tourists and business travelers from New York to India, but merely to show that it was possible to fly. “The first step is to demonstrate that this is possible, then we can open up and develop applications,” said Borschberg. “For us it’s important to show what we can do with this technology, so it’s more a first step. It’s more a symbol than an end product.”
The aviation industry seems to agree that the future of solar technology in commercial airplanes does not look bright, at least not in the near term. Not a single member of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association is currently researching or developing solar technology for planes. Boeing, highly active on the sustainable aviation scene, has several staffers in top positions at the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and is a driving force behind innovation in fuel cell technology for airplanes. But even they are leaving solar-powered flight alone, for now. “Solar isn’t something we’re actively pursuing for commercial air travel—the energy density we would need from the solar cells simply isn’t there, and the trade-offs are too great,” said Boeing press officer Terrance Scott.
Today, almost everyone who is looking forward to the aviation fuel of tomorrow is looking not up at the sun, but down at the ground, to biofuels. Nate Brown, deputy director of CAAFI and policy analyst for the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of Environment and Energy, says that fuels made from plants like jatropha (related to castor oil, it thrives even in tough, dry environments and may prove critical in places like India and Africa), camelina, salicornia, and algae look most promising from where he’s standing today, but the jury is still out as to which biofuels will prove most feasible, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and safest for airplanes.
Carl Burleson, acting deputy assistant administrator for the FAA’s Department of Policy, Planning and Environment, goes further. He says that even within the biofuel sector, the industry is really only looking at “drop-in fuels,” or fuels that could theoretically be poured straight into the engines of today’s fleet, with no modifications required. “Early on we looked at the idea of hydrogen, the idea of ethanol, various things that would involve redesigning today’s fleet, and just decided it wasn’t a very viable approach because you have such a large embedded capital cost right now in today’s fleet,” said Burleson. “If you were going to design a hydrogen aircraft, if it were viable, they would be substantially different in design, so even if you get it right you’re talking 30-40 years to change over the fleet.”
Several airlines have already run test flights on biofuel; the advances have been minimal, but a great deal of manpower and funding are currently pouring into research and development. Meanwhile, as the aviation industry (which knows it will eventually need to graduate from fossil fuels, for both economic and environmental reasons) considers biofuels the first step, Borschberg and Piccard are already leaping headlong several steps past that. Borschberg says the biggest lesson that he and Piccard have learned from the pioneers of aviation—the Wright brothers and Lindbergh—is that “if you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.”
“There were people in the U.S. who were able to demonstrate in 1903 that it was impossible to fly,” Borschberg likes to point out. “We prefer to spend time to make it possible rather than spending time trying to demonstrate that it’s not possible. It’s more interesting.”
This blog post was produced by GOOD for Beyond The Edge. GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward.