AstroTalk Episode December 22, 2016

Blankets for Space and Interstellar Travel

3:13pm - 4:00pm

Meet Liem Pham, a spacecraft dressmaker for NASA. Pham makes the blankets that must cover every NASA vehicle before it is sent into space. Pham started at NASA 19 years ago, putting cables in the Cassini spacecraft. After 3 years of this, she was hired on to make the blankets that must cover every NASA vehicle before it is launched. Pham is part of the Flight Technician Services group, a group that contributes to all stages of spacecraft assembly. Pham constructs blankets from different materials, for all kinds of different uses. Blankets can be made a carbon type material called Kapton, which is used for a charged environment, to dissipate the charge on a space vehicle. She also makes blankets with materials such as Teflon, or Mylar netting with Dacron films. Work done by Pham is just another example of an integral part of the process of getting spaceships off the ground.
Interstellar travel, or interstellar space exploration, is occupying the minds of many scientists. Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space, but it took 36 years to get there. Voyager 1 is so low on energy though, so it does not have the capacity to do much science while it is in interstellar space. The faint signal that scientists on Earth are receiving from Voyager has the power of a refrigerator light bulb, or about 20 watts. Scientists are now hoping they can develop technology where they can get probes to interstellar space in a 10 year time frame, and then have the probes "live" in interstellar space so that they could do some science while there. Scientists also hope that these probes can visit some Kuiper Belt objects, like dwarf planets, on their way to interstellar space. Scientists are also dreaming up ideas of sending humans to interstellar space, or even to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, which is 4.3 light-years away. Hibernation experiments are now being dreamt up, where humans would be put into a state of hibernation on these long voyages. To do all these things, humans would have to develop exotic technology, because our present chemical-jet-fuel based propulsion systems can get us nowhere near to interstellar space or the next star system, because they do not have the ability to propel a space anywhere near a fraction of the speed of light that would be required to get us there.
Exotic, futuristic telescope systems are also being thought up. These would use the gravitational lensing properties of the Sun to magnify a distant star or planet, to the point that we could make out surface features on these objects. Pretty heady stuff.