Lacuna Passage: Video Game Brings Mars To Earth

What is Lacuna Passage
A recent crowdfunding campaign aims to let you explore Mars from the comfort of your own home. The project, Lacuna Passage, is a video game that provides a true-to-life representation of the Martian environment for players to explore.

According to the Kickstarter campaign page, “Lacuna Passage is a story-driven exploration and survival game set on Mars, drawing inspiration from titles like Dear Esther, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Pokemon Snap. You play as Jessica Rainer, the only survivor of the crashed Heracles mission, investigating the disappearance of the first ever manned mission to Mars. You have several tools at your disposal, but most important are your skills of observation. You will need to uncover mission logs, recorded audio files, and other physical clues left behind at critical mission locations in order to uncover the story. An interplanetary trail of breadcrumbs is waiting for you.”

Lacuna Passage
Check out that view.

Lacuna Passage is a grassroots video game project created by Random Seed Games. While not seasoned veterans of the game industry, it’s clear that every member of this volunteer team has a passion for this project and an abundance of talent.

Inspired by the successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on the Red Planet and it’s subsequent transmission of pictures from the planet’s surface, the Lacuna Passage team has been hard at work for nearly a year trying to bring this game to life.

The best part?

According to the developers, “All the terrain in the game is generated from actual Mars satellite elevation data. The Mars High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) provides us with a true-to-life game environment that allows for a space exploration experience unlike any other.”

The game uses real data to simulate being on Mars. It also includes real-life astronaut perspective and more accurate “medical monitoring” than is featured in most games, showing just how hard these creators have worked on making this a true first-person human experience.

Lacuna Passage 2
Lacuna Passage is being developed as a complete commercial game. It has a plot, main character, rich artwork, a soundtrack, and play availability for all of PC, Mac, and Linux. The team is also trying to remain an independent entity, which will allow them to have full creative control over this project and any future endeavors.

There are 14 days left to help Random Seed Games reach their Kickstarter goal for Lacuna Passage. If you dream of visiting Mars one day, consider contributing to this project and get a feel for the Red Planet without leaving the Blue Marble.


Scanadu Scout Breaks Indiegogo Crowdfunding Record

Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 2.36.41 PM

The Scanadu Scout became the most funded campaign in Indiegogo history on Friday. The Star Trek inspired medical device that runs on NASA technology surpassed the previous record holder, the “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” campaign, when it broke $1.37 million in total funding. At the time of posting, the campaign has raised $1,419,250 with one week remaining in the campaign.

Scanadu Scout is based on Star Trek’s Tricorder and is built on the 32-bit RTOS Micrium platform, which is the same technology used for Sample Analysis at Mars on the Curiosity rover. The medical grade Tricorder fits inside your pocket and sends your vital signs wirelessly to your smartphone. The device works by simply pressing it to your forehead. In 10 seconds, the device collects vital signs, including heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen levels, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and emotional stress, and can provide an electrocardiography. A mobile app then tracks all the data, bringing your most important information, your health, into your hands.

Scanadu CEO Walter de Brouwer said, “We are in the biggest tsunami of personalization in the world, but for medicine, we are still waiting in line in an emergency room.”

The design for the Scanadu Scout began after Qualcomm opened the Tricorder X Prize, a $10 million dollar competition to develop a functional Star Trek-style Tricorder device that could diagnose 15 medical conditions. Scanadu, a technology startup out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, met the challenge with the design of the Scout. The company took to Indiegogo to raise further development funds and to find participants for official Scout clinical studies and feedback.

The Scanadu Scout still has to go through the Food and Drug Administration approval process. Campaign contributors will have the option to participate in clinical studies and help refine the Scanadu Scout with feedback about the revolutionary device. After the studies and FDA approval, the Scanadu Scout will be introduced into the consumer market and be available over the counter.

Scanadu is offering 10 levels of perks for the Indiegogo campaign contributors, ranging from $10 to $4,470 device bundles. The public has until July 20 to participate in NASA spinoff and crowdfunding history by staying informed by a $10 donation or pre-ordering the Scanadu Scout for $199.

Help fund the Scanadu Scout and get your own tricorder at the Indiegogo campaign page.

House Democrats Propose Increasing NASA’s Budget, Roadmap For Mars

Earlier this week Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Space proposed legislation to increase NASA’s funding over the next three years. The bill also calls on NASA to establish a roadmap for a manned mission to Mars.

The bill introduced by the ranking member of the Space Subcommittee Donna Edwards (D-MD) proposes funding NASA at $18.10 billion in fiscal year 2014 and increasing it by 2 percent a year through fiscal year 2016 to a level of $18.87 billion.

The legislation also establishes the goal of a crewed mission to Mars and mandates that NASA develop a roadmap toward that end. In order to meet that goal, the Space Launch System and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle would be prioritized under this budget being funded at $1.65 billion and $1.23 billion respectively. The Commercial Crew Program would also be funded at $700 million per year, significantly higher than Congress has previously authorized.

The proposal would also restore NASA’s public outreach and education programs, which were recently suspended because of the sequestration cuts required by the Budget Control Act. Planetary Science funding would be sustained at $1.5 billion annually, instead of receiving the significant cuts proposed under the Obama administration’s budget request.

Edwards’ bill is a response to the recent Republican proposal for funding NASA at $16.8 billion in fiscal year 2014. “It is my hope that we can work together with Members on both sides of the aisle to ensure that NASA’s mission is clear, expectations will inspire the public and workforce, and that the level of resources enables the agency to be successful.” Edwards added.

Read the press release here:

Light Pollution and NASA: Combating the “Dark Side” of Light

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have had a ceaseless fascination with light. Light, in a sense, is now the mechanism with which humans continuously attempt to cast the unknown into the shadows. Whether it be gathering around a campfire, sleeping with a night light, or filling streets with neon advertisements, light is omnipresent in today’s society. Sure, some light is necessary to allow people to see where they are going in the dark, but more often than not, humans use light to placate a fear of the unknown. It turns out that this fear is somewhat justified, at least from an evolutionary standpoint. Thousands of years ago, when larger predators relentlessly pursued early humans, the act of gathering around a fire during the night helped humans to survive. The light provided by the fire allowed early humans to spot predators and scare them away, and it helped them feel more secure until morning finally arrived.

History and predicted spread of light pollution in the United States.

Historical and predicted spread of light pollution in the United States.

Many scientists believe that a fear of the dark stems from similar events in early human history. Since then, creation and manipulation of light has shaped the course of modern history, and as time has progressed, light has become an inseparable component of society. Most of society has no idea, though, that there is a “dark side” of light usage, known as light pollution, which will soon affect every corner of the world.

Light pollution is generally defined as the overuse or misuse of artificial lighting. In other words, when too much light is used or is directed wastefully up into the sky, light scatters off particles in the atmosphere, creating a glow of excess light. Since artificial light is most intense and excessive in urban areas, cities tend to have the worst light pollution. It is one of the most pervasive types of pollution and has a stunningly long list of consequences, affecting human life along with the entirety of the biosphere. Such consequences include:

  • Reduced or little night sky visibility
  • Possible link to increased air pollution in cities
  • Disruption of biological processes in nature
  • Disruption of sleep cycles
  • Waste of energy and money
Light pollution in action.

The effects of air and light pollution on night sky visibility.

The most noticeable consequence of light pollution is its effect on night sky visibility. One hundred years ago, the majority of the world could look up at the night sky and see hundreds of thousands of stars scattered across the backdrop of a crisp black sky and the Milky Way. Now, inner city dwellers may only be able to see a few bright stars. Even worse, light pollution from cities can spread out and affect areas miles away. Today, scientists estimate that nearly every part of the continental United States is, in some way, affected by light pollution. This understandably presents a huge problem for astronomers and physicists who need clear views of the sky to do research, so their instruments have to be built in increasingly remote locations. In the near future, when light pollution even creeps into isolated corners of the world, a faint glow will shroud the sky and block out some of the true wonders of the universe.

NASA observatories are also affected by light pollution, both on Earth and in space. NASA’s Earth Observatory System regularly captures breathtaking views of the Earth at night, dotted with city lights and even some large wildfires. Today, though, it is impossible for NASA to get a good view of the Earth as it once was: completely dark. Surprisingly, the lights visible in such images reveal some distinct geophysical and political borders, notably the divide between North and South Korea and the beginning of the Himalayas. Even some large groups of lit fishing boats are visible on the Nile River. Through these observations, though the intensity of light pollution becomes overwhelmingly clear, NASA has managed to observe the spread of artificial lighting with unprecedented detail and learn a great deal more about human impact on the world. city lights air pollution

Bright city lights have been linked to an increase in air pollution.

All too often, some of that human impact comes in the form of pollution, and one of the most astounding consequences of light pollution is its possible effect on air pollution in cities. Smog obviously does not help light pollution; in fact, it essentially amplifies it, because the light is scattered more and trapped by the pollutants in the air. No one ever thought, though, that light pollution might make air pollution worse. According to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, light pollution seems to interfere with natural chemical processes that clean the air at night. Their findings, presented at the American Geophysical Union in 2010, indicate that nitrate radicals, which are destroyed by sunlight during the day, can also be inactivated by light pollution. This causes the breakdown of pollutants to slow by up to 7 percent and can increase pollutant levels the next day by up to 5 percent. While that may not seem significant, over time, that adds up to a very large amount of unnecessary pollution. In fact, by directing light only where it is needed using efficient outdoor lighting fixture design, much of this can easily be avoided.

In nature, natural light and dark patterns are essential for the reproduction and survival of many species. Frogs, for example, refrain from singing their mating songs in the presence of too much artificial light, and migrating birds can become easily confused by city lights, often fatally crashing into skyscrapers. Thousands of birds die each year from this disorientation. Turtles, which use the reflection of the moon on ocean water to find their way back to the sea after hatching, can become disoriented by light pollution from brightly lit beachfront developments. These are just a handful of the affects that light pollution has on animals, and the consequences of such changes on their environments could be astonishing.

Humans are not immune to the consequences of light usage. Light pollution affects humans psychologically, physically, and even economically. Every living creature on Earth has evolved with the natural cycle of day and night. Now, people are altering that cycle with light pollution, so physical and mental reactions to the change should come as no surprise. Excessive time in brightly lit areas can trigger a myriad of sleep disorders, some of which are linked to depression. Some studies even claim to have evidence that links increased cancer risks to light pollution, though there is lack of sufficient evidence to say for sure either way. Since light pollution is caused by using too much light or shining light where it is not needed, it corresponds with a huge amount of wasted money and energy leading to many other types of pollution. efficient lighting

Outdoor lighting design efficiency.

Light pollution is clearly a significant problem, and while there is no way to completely stop light pollution, it is fairly simple to control. By installing efficient outdoor lighting fixtures that direct light down and out at the appropriate angle needed, light pollution can be reduced significantly. In fact, this would probably save money long-term, too, because lights would be tremendously more energy-efficient and prevent other types of pollution. Using less light, of course, would also help.

So, where does NASA stand in all this? As it turns out, NASA’s amazing views of the Earth at night helped to create an unsurpassed view of the light pollution engulfing the planet. The Earth Observatory System and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite satellites have given people a new perspective of light pollution and human impact on Earth. After all, NASA has always had an amazing ability to open the eyes of the public with breathtaking pictures from space. NASA’s EOS will only continue to raise awareness and make detailed measurements of the spread of light pollution in the future. For years, NASA has been writing articles and using pictures to inform the public about light pollution and organize more information on the topic. Let’s make sure future generations will be able to stargaze, enjoy a healthy environment, and get a good night’s sleep. A Penny4NASA can help control light pollution.

Join an international community of people committed to controlling light pollution:

Reusable Rockets: The Future Of Space Exploration

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle

There is not one single specific reason for why space programs are so expensive, especially government funded programs like NASA. However, if one were to pinpoint what one of the biggest costs to a space program was, it would likely be launch costs.

Since the beginning of the space age in the 1950s one of the most difficult aspects of space travel was getting out of Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said, “Reach low orbit and you’re halfway to anywhere in the Solar System.” This can be seen as a statement of how easy it is in terms of effort to go to another planet from Earth orbit, but it is also a declarative statement that getting into Earth orbit is just as difficult as traveling to other worlds. Today, the easiest way to do this is the same as it was at the beginning of the space age; to use a rocket.

There are many problems associated with sending a rocket into orbit however. Much of this comes down to material and propellant costs, which are based on the weight of the system. The lighter the rocket, the more you can send up with less fuel. Staging makes this easier, but it always comes back to the fact that most of the rocket is used to get to space and then discarded into the atmosphere to be destroyed by the elements. Therefore a lot of cost of space exploration is associated with building new rockets for future missions. The holy grail in rocket technology many have sought for decades is the idea of a fully reusable launch system to reduce launch costs by an order of magnitude.

StarBooster concept art from Buzz Aldrin's website showing an idea for a system where the booster rockets fly back to Earth like the Space Shuttle.

StarBooster concept art from Buzz Aldrin’s website showing an idea for a system where the booster rockets fly back to Earth like the Space Shuttle.

Back in the days of the Apollo Program the mighty Saturn rockets were built for only one use. Used stages fell back into the ocean or burned up in the upper atmosphere, never to be used again. The role of the rocket meant every Apollo mission needed a brand new rocket each time, which accounted for most of the costs, and part of the reason why the Apollo program was canceled after Apollo 17 even with three more Saturn V rockets already built. The three remaining rockets were later used for the Skylab mission and the rest divided up into museum pieces.

When the Space Transportation System was first envisioned in the 1970s it had a grand scope intended to greatly increase America’s access to space and the Solar System beyond what the Apollo program was capable of. However political and economic issues led President Nixon to cancel all but one part of the original STS design, that of the surface to orbit shuttle. This became what is today known as the Space Shuttle, which inherited the official title of Space Transportation System. NASA decided that the optimal thing to do would be to create a mostly reusable spacecraft capable of multiple launches a year that could be the workhorse for all of America’s space needs. This would make the program cheaper through amortization — paying for itself over time — and enable it to do multiple tasks in orbit.

A Space Shuttle SRB being towed back after recovery in the ocean.

A Space Shuttle SRB being towed back after recovery in the ocean.

However, history has taught us that even the best plans don’t always work out as intended. The cost of the space shuttle became much higher and its ability to do rapidly successive launches never reached the potential envisioned. If it was reusable, why did this happen? The answer is the space shuttle was ultimately not as reusable as originally planned because the program was never fully funded. While the solid rocket boosters could be recovered and set up for future launches, the biggest issue was the Orbiter. After returning from each mission the original plan was for it to be inspected, undergo quick maintenance and then be reset to a new launch stack and be ready to go again within two weeks. However, the maintenance turnaround time on the space shuttle was grossly underestimated, often taking months, with Space Shuttle Atlantis setting the record for two launches in 54 days.

The reason maintenance turnaround was so long for the space shuttle was mostly due to the fact that a large part of the reusable spacecraft needed to be overhauled and replaced after each flight. The thermal tiles on the Orbiter often took a long time to inspect with each of the 35,000 tiles manufactured for a specific spot on the space shuttle, thus requiring individual testing. The Space Shuttle Main Engines, despite being very advanced for liquid engines at the time, were still very complex, requiring removal, inspection, and the replacement of several parts after each flight. Before the Block II upgrade, the turbopumps, one of the most important components, needed to be completely overhauled each flight due to the light weight hydrogen fuel burning them out. The toxic propellants used in the thrusters required special handling which meant no other activities could be done at the same time. As seen in the pictures below, the planned ground processing was to be in a simple hanger like an airliner, but the actual ground processing complex ended up vastly more complex. Often the entire avionics system had to be overhauled and replaced as well. In the end the most reusable part of the orbiter was the primary structure.

Envisioned ground processing for Space Shuttle

Envisioned ground processing for Space Shuttle


Actual ground processing for a Space Shuttle

Due to funding limitations the re-usability plan for the space shuttle was drastically scaled back. The space shuttle was a very complex vehicle, and the idea for using it for everything NASA originally wanted it to do did not pan out. This lead to expendable launch vehicles coming back into use for orbiting satellites, robotic probes, and other unmanned cargo as it was cheaper and more reliable.

This does not mean re-usability is a bad idea though, however it does mean the concept of a reusable spacecraft may need to be re-evaluated. Recently NASA revealed that their new spacecraft intended for use in manned missions, called the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is intended to be reusable. However unlike the space shuttle, this time they are only intending the re-usability to be for a specific part of the vehicle, the re-entry capsule that returns to Earth. The capsule, which is more like the original Apollo capsules than the Space Shuttle, will return to Earth and make water landings aided by parachute descent. A problem with water landings though is that salt water is very corrosive to on board electronics.

Part of Orion’s re-usability is that the majority of the electronics are in the crew capsule itself unlike Apollo, and are not intended to be replaced after each flight. This is done by placing the electronics in the pressurized section of the capsule that the astronauts ride in to protect them from the salt water. Exterior equipment will be sealed to protect them from water and other hazards like dust and micrometeors. The electronics will also be very simple so that they can be upgraded over time as needed, and thus require fewer replacements for different missions. The only part of the capsule that is not reusable is the ablative heat shield which will melt away during re-entry. While needing replacing for a new mission, it will require less effort than inspecting thermal tiles such as on the space shuttle, despite the weight cost of ablative shielding.

This leads to an obvious question, what about the rest of the Orion spacecraft, or of the Space Launch System rocket that will carry it as a whole? The service module for the Orion spacecraft is, for the foreseeable future, not going to be reusable. The Orion service module, which is designed after the ATV cargo vehicle used by the European Space Agency, will be detached before re-entry and burn up in the atmosphere. However, NASA has not discounted the idea of reusing the service module in the future by leaving them in orbit as satellites to be refueled so that future crew modules could be sent up alone and docked with them. This is still a speculative idea though as an on orbit refueling system does not yet exist. As for the rest of the Space Launch System rocket, the solid rocket boosters would be reused from the Space Shuttle Program. Future variants based on the same technology would also likely be reusable. However, the rest of the rocket would likely be made as an expendable launch system for increased reliability and lower maintenance costs much like the current class of expendable launch vehicles.

The cylindrical service module will not be reusable unless it can be re-purposed in orbit by future refueling techniques.

The cylindrical service module will not be reusable unless it can be re-purposed in orbit by future refueling techniques.

The increased use of expendable launch vehicles for reliability has happened in part due to the fact that the space shuttle’s long turnaround time in processing made it unfeasible to be used for all launches into Earth orbit. More frequent and less risky unmanned launches could be made with expendable rockets like the Atlas V and Delta IV while the space shuttle became a dedicated manned vehicle, which decreased the usefulness of its design. In many ways the space shuttle became a symbol of the spacecraft we deserved, but not the one that we needed anymore due to the reduced scope of the original Space Transportation System plan and the post-flight processing issues inherent in the reusable design. Future rockets will likely look at re-usability more like what is being done with Orion and SLS with the main rocket sacrificing re-usability for safety and reliability and the main spacecraft being more reusable.

The dream of a fully reusable rocket system is not entirely dead. The Falcon 9 rocket developed by SpaceX is currently an expendable launcher. However, ambitious plans are in the works to eventually upgrade the rocket to become mostly reusable to the point where entire rocket stages will return to Earth and land themselves back on the pad. Current feasibility testing is underway, but this is an ambitious plan which presents great possibilities for the future of space exploration. Since NASA is intended to be one of SpaceX’s primary customers it could one day have access to a cheap reusable launch system if everything goes as planned. If so the precedent may be set for a future of more robust and reusable launch vehicles, enabling humanity to finally achieve cheaper access to space.

Watch the video below to see the testing of SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket, the first step toward a reusable rocket system.

A future for humanity in space relies on such innovative ideas. But this cannot be achieved without proper funding. NASA can do a lot more with an increased budget that wouldn’t require much sacrifice from elsewhere. If you think NASA deserves a bigger budget, let your representatives in Congress know by using this tool: