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Copernicus Tells Us About Tomorrow's KNOWN UNIVERSE (Nat Geo Channel)!! Rocket Engines, Space Elevators, Sigrid With A Rover, And More!!




This week on KNOWN UNIVERSE we tackle how to get off of the Earth.  This one is less of my area of expertise, and I was pretty busy when we were filming it, so I’m only in one segment.  But that segment, watching a rocket engine test at NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, was a hell of a lot of fun to film.  More on that later.  First up:  Mike Massimino, Steve “Jake” Jacobs, and David Kaplan test the efficiency of various rocket fuels.

To do this, Mike and Jake took a cannon (why do they always get to play pirate?) and loaded it with different fuels: gunpowder, flash powder, and gasoline.  Then, they shot the cannon and had David mark the distance each cannonball flew.    And just to be sure they did it correctly, they  filmed it with a high speed camera against a background they could use to measure distances and calculate velocities.


Here’s the result!





The one segment I’m in this week was a spectacular one – one of my favorite things I got to do on the show.  I went to NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and watch a rocket engine test!

Stennis is only about an hour outside of New Orleans, and it is where NASA has been testing its engines since the early 60s.  The site was chosen because it was a sparsely populated area, but to build it they actually relocated 5 small towns that existed on the land.  Some remnants of those towns still exist there.  It also had to have access to barges because the Saturn V engines they tested there had to get to Florida and were too big to be transported over land. 

First I got to go into a huge facility where a bunch of engines are stored.  Here I am hanging out with some engines. 

The things on the left are RS-68 engines for the Delta IV rockets, and the thing in the middle is a Space Shuttle Main Engine!  I saw lots of them there.  The RS-68 and the SSMEs are very different.  If the SSME is a Ferrari, then the RS-68 is a Chevy.  That’s partly because the SSMEs have to be reusable.   As a result they are much more complicated.  The nozzle of these engines can reach temperatures about half that of the surface of the Sun.  As a result, the SSMEs must be cooled with liquid hydrogen to ensure they don’t melt.  But the nozzle of the RS-68 just oblates away as it launches – it essentially melts from the inside out.

That was the strangest workshop I’ve ever been in – everything was amazingly clean and organized.    Every surface sparkled.  Every tool had a spot it had to go into.  That’s because lives are on the line, and you can’t afford to have dirt or lost tools gumming up your engines.

These engines weigh tons, but one fun thing I got to do was move one of them around on an air bearing.  It is basically like an air hockey table – they have these huge machines that create a cushion of air under the rocket engine, allowing one person (actually you need a few for steering) to move the many-ton engine where you want it to go.  That got cut from the show, but it was fun!

But the real fun started outside when I got to watch a Delta IV engine test live!  I’ve been to a Space Shuttle launch before, but this was even better.  The Shuttle launch was spectacular, but the downer is that you can only get a few miles away at the closest.  For this test I was probably more like a thousand yards away.  The other difference is that in a Shuttle launch you experience it for a few seconds and then it is gone.  This rocket engine test keeps going for nearly three minutes because the engine is bolted into the test stand.    There is a huge deafening roar, so powerful you can feel it all over your body and you can’t even hear another person if they are standing next to you and screaming

Just check out the goofy look on my face when watching this thing:

The other crazy part is that it is liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen being combined to make water that causes such a violent reaction that you can ride it to space.  It actually creates a cloud of steam in the process, which quickly condenses into rain.  We got lucky with the wind and the steam blew just off to the right of us.  A slightly different wind direction and we, and all of our camera and audio equipment, would have been drenched.

So much fun!  I don’t think I’ll ever get another opportunity to see something like that again.




If you really want to make space travel more efficient chemical rockets are no good.  You need a space elevator!  Start with an anchor in geostationary orbit, and lower a tether down to Earth.  Then, in theory, you can ride a platform up to orbit.  But there are a couple of issues:  material strength and power.

We need something super-strong to make something that can support its own weight going all the way to space.  Years ago, such a material was the stuff of science fiction fantasy, but now we have it:  carbon nanotubes.  These are carbon molecules arranged in long shapes, giving them super-strength.  David Kaplan went on a field trip and actually learned how to make some.  I like this segment, because I never knew how they were made, and they are so strange that they seem like advanced super-tech.  They are, but they are now a reality!

The second problem is powering the elevator.  If you have to take the fuel with you, it becomes that much harder to lift the platform.  One solution is to build a laser and beam the power to the moving platform.  Sigrid Close got to go to a lab where she was able to witness a test of this concept in action.




Once you get out of the Earth’s gravity, you’ll probably want to go somewhere.  You might even have to dock with a space station.  Dave got have Mike teach him how to dock the Shuttle to the ISS.  I’m jealous!  I want to learn space-docking skills from an astronaut!




Landing on the surface of a planet can be just as tricky as getting off one.  Take Mars – it has an atmosphere too thin to make parachutes very effective.   The current Mars rovers had to use a wacky airbag landing system and bounce their way to a landing.  But the next Mars rover, Curiosity, is too big for that.  So it will use a four-part landing strategy: heat shield, parachute, thrusters, and a sky crane!  After the parachute stage, thrusters will fire to slow the spacecraft’s descent.  Then it will hover and lower the rover down on ropes!  Seriously!

To test whether a spacecraft can slow its descent using thrusters, David Kaplan visited the Marshal Space Flight Center.  There they are dropping a prototype lander from hundreds of feet and slowing it with compressed air, before letting it fall into a net.  Very impressive!




Speaking of rovers, NASA is testing other Mars rover concepts beyond Curiosity.  One, the Axel Rover, can split off two wheels, which can then descend steep terrain to get to the bottom of otherwise-unreachable craters.  To see it in action, Sigrid decided to race the rover to the bottom of a steep cliff.


Here’s the video:





For real long-distance travel in space you want your engines to be as efficient as possible.  The most efficient currently-viable engine for cruising in space is an ion engine.  Sigrid got to see an advanced form of this in action:  a VASIMIR rocket.  That’s a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.  Basically you shoot ionized gas (a plasma) out of a rocket using a magnetic field to guide it.  You wouldn’t use this kind of engine to get off the Earth (because it doesn’t have high thrust), but you would use it to provide efficient propulsion when you get there.  That’s TIE Fighter technology!  (They stand for Twin Ion Engine, though really it is because they look like bow ties.)

That’s it for Episode 7.  For an “out of this world” kind of show, this one is pretty grounded.   Most of this stuff isn’t science fiction, it is happening either in a laboratory or in real space missions. 


Next week:  the last episode of the season, and it is an awesome astronomical one:  THE END OF THE WORLD!


-Andy Howell  aka Copernicus

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Readers Talkback
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  • June 15, 2011, 10:27 a.m. CST

    AICN isn't exactly rushing to get their GL reviews up.

    by christonomist

    Wonder if the reluctance has anything to do with the 29% over at Rotten Tomatoes...

  • May 26, 2011 8:39:06 PM CDT I loved THOR by assymuffjizz How about you do an article on JAR JAR ABRAMS' BREWERY TREK. I'd *love* to see the results of that real science-massacre.

  • June 15, 2011, 11:32 a.m. CST

    And the results were fine indeed...

    by AssyMuffJizz

    I expect my AICN paycheck to arrive shortly. Make it snappy.

  • June 15, 2011, 11:40 a.m. CST

    VASIMIR engines

    by Longtime Lurker

    For those who are interested, Check out the work of Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz. He has been a moving force (heheheh) behind VASIMIR engines for many years now. He was also on this Nat Geo series and has a company called Ad Astra Rocket, which he started after having been at NASA for many years and gone on many shuttle flights. Trans-Mars Injection in 30 days? Could very well happen with one of these engines. :)

  • June 15, 2011, 1:44 p.m. CST


    by BSB

    Zoom Zoom.

  • June 15, 2011, 2:03 p.m. CST


    by AssyMuffJizz

    I think you're thinking about me--not Choppah. I'm the one who's gay.

  • The Earth's influence extends throughout the whole universe. Like any other object with mass. Gravity never stops effecting. It spreads to every direction to all over the universe. Earth, Sun, Jupiter, you and me, an orange, everything with mass. The only thing that makes Earth or any other object look like if has a neglegible influence at a distance has to do with how gravity loses strenght with distance. It's called the inverse-square law of universal gravitation. It means that the influence of gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from it's source. It's basic astronomy 101. Why would Copernicus, who's an astronomer, would say such a dumbed down thing like that? Isn't his goal to teach science to the laymen? So what the bloody hell, man!

  • It might look like they are not, but for starters they are at orbit, which itself means they are at the grip of Earth's gravity. The so-called zero-gravity effect is actually not due to lack of gravity, but form something compeltly different: weigthlessness due to freefall. In fact, the ISS and the people and everything in it are falling. THe weightless is in fact the same efect one would feel if one was jumping from a building or a airplane toward the ground. The ISS and everything in it are falling toward Earth. The reason they don't crash into Earth has to do with the trajectory of their fall, which is concident to the curvature of teh Earth. They are falling in direction to the Earth's curvature, not toward it's center. This is why they are, in a sense, in a permanent state of fall. Yhat's why they call it freefall. That's the corect term. All that talk of zero gravity and whatnot is just nonsense. It's pure talk from ignorance, it's completly misunderstanding the phenomenum. But the influence of gravity is there at ISS. It's about 40% or what we feel here at the survace, if i'm not too mistaken. If, say, one would to teleport to the ISS, we would fall toward Earth like we do on Earth. The reason for the freefall effect has to do with the way we went upthere in the first place, through acceleration that won the acceleration of Earth's own gravitational pull, and then a fall back to Earth but on a trajectory that matches the Earth's curvature. Aint that awesome? There are no place in the universe at zero gravity. Gravity is everywhere. About gravity, everything is being influenced by the gravity of something else and vice-versa. So much so that if it wasn't for the influence of the dark energy, gravity alone would stop the expantion of the universe and maybe even create a reverse crunch effect.

  • Did the engineers from NASA saw TDK and said "we could use that idea"?

  • When it was discovered that a certain deep space probe that went to explore the futher planets of our solar system had a small nuclear cell to power it in addition to the solar panels, a huge contorvesy was created due to it's possible violation of the non-nuclear in space treaties.

  • June 15, 2011, 2:55 p.m. CST

    assymuffjizz, you came out in a public forum? I respect you for it.

    by AsimovLives

    My respect to you, sir. That was badass.

  • A space elevator would be like riding up a hundred and sixty kilometres of fuse wire through a lightning storm. The electrical potential spanning the distance between the base and the orbital point would be staggering. One zap and it's Goodnight, Irene! And could you also imagine listening to The Girl from Ipanema for your whole ride?

  • June 15, 2011, 6:23 p.m. CST


    by Longtime Lurker

    Your post is brilliant. I must admit, however, that it is the thought of the Ulti-Muzak "Girl from Ipanema" that frightens me the most (as it would any sane person). :) Let's hope the Space Elevator is a fast ride :) BTW wasn't "The Girl from Ipanema" the tune the Jake and Elwood had to listen to on the elevator ride to Mr. Spielberg's office? Help me out here people, my Blues Brothers DVD is out of reach. :)

  • June 15, 2011, 9:06 p.m. CST

    This topic = Battle Angel Alita

    by The_Maxx

    True, true

  • June 15, 2011, 10:45 p.m. CST


    by AssyMuffJizz

    You and I both know what's *really* gay (i.e., me and you).

  • June 16, 2011, 9:21 a.m. CST

    Wee Willy Effer

    by AssyMuffJizz

    Come on, man. You're hot for me. Admit it. Believe me -- there's no shame in being queer and enjoying it.

  • June 16, 2011, 9:23 a.m. CST

    Ahem -- on topic post...

    by AssyMuffJizz

    Anytime I imagine a space elevator, the closing moments of WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY comes to mind.

  • June 16, 2011, 12:02 p.m. CST


    by Sigrid Close

    Hey - would any of you, by chance, be the guys who are harassing me on my Stanford email? :) I feel like I'm getting some stalkers out there...

  • June 16, 2011, 2:11 p.m. CST

    Yup, he's a troll alright.

    by AsimovLives

  • June 16, 2011, 2:17 p.m. CST

    Of space elevators

    by AsimovLives

    Inicially, when the idea was first conceived, it looked to be a very praticaly solution to the problem of rocket travel to orbit. The theoretical physics of it are quite simple, actually. The real problem is, of course, engineering. And it's not just the question of finding a perfect material with the proper tensil qualities. It's not just how we will hoist the elevator from Earth to orbit and back again. It's mroe then that. It's considering that for a good part, it's subjected to atmospheric conditions. That winds would bend and swing it. That it can create a wip effect that could cause untol dammages to both the part at orbit and the part attacked on the ground. And of the unimaginable dammage that it would create if it all fell to Earth. considering Earth's rotation,if a space elevator fell, it would fall along the Earth's curvature, meaning, a dammage area of at least 10,000 long, with the last par falling going as fast as a large heavy meteor. It's the stuff of nightmares. The idea is brillant. But would it ever be practical? Or desirable?

  • June 16, 2011, 2:29 p.m. CST

    No stalker here, Sigrid...

    by AssyMuffJizz

    Now stalking Copernicus otoh.... Kidding. Kidding.

  • June 16, 2011, 6:45 p.m. CST

    You are going to hate Green Lantern science

    by Antz

    Especially the finale... laws of gravity and all that. Mind you, Martin Campbell is not known for using paying much attention to the laws of physics in films like Vertical Limit

  • June 16, 2011, 9:09 p.m. CST


    by Sigrid Close

    Hi - I didn't think so but thought I'd ask (and you are not a jerk). :) I had to report it to Stanford HR today though (creeeeepy) Andy - you get the closing line every time!!! :)

  • :)

  • June 17, 2011, 12:39 p.m. CST

    Asi: Ion Thrusters, Nukes in Space

    by Coordinate_System

    Asi, ion thrusters do not require (direct) nuclear power sources. Advanced EHF (for the US Airforce) has four of them, and its powered by the sun (which is thermonuclear) In fact, the first one up had a problem with its main thruster, so its ion thrusters are being used for orbit raising. As for Nukes, the US uses radioisotope thermoelectric generators for its deep space probes which depend on radioactive decay for power generation, not Fission (there have been several nuclear reactors in space, however). If you were referring to the controversy surrounding Cassini, the concern was about a possible mishap (during launch or flyby) would spread plutonium about I don't know to which treaty you refer, but if its the one about the prohibition of nuclear weapons in orbit, any concerns about RTGs are groundless.

  • June 17, 2011, 12:42 p.m. CST


    by Coordinate_System

    My company has a presence there, and I was there several years ago. In the day time, the surrounding area is quite beautiful. At night, however, it was quite spooky. Of course, I could say the same thing about Bourbon Street.

  • June 17, 2011, 3:56 p.m. CST

    coordinate_system , thanks for the info, much appreciated

    by AsimovLives

    I'm an advocate of Nuclear fusion as the energy of the future (which will need to be, if the way of the future is for everything going electrical, liek cars). And if they ever crack out a workable nuclear fusion reactor, i wonder if they will allow it to power a spaceship. Solar wenergy is all nice and fine, but it really only works very well at the distances like the Earth from the Sun. Futher out the solar system, solar energy becames less and less useful. Nuclear fusion is the future, since it's like actually carring the sun with it. But as things have been going on, more and more i'm less optimistic and i get mroe fatalistic about the future. The immediate future, at least the one i will know while i'll still be alive. I'm so terribly disapointed as how the world turned out compared to the promises from my youth years.

  • June 17, 2011, 3:57 p.m. CST

    Bourbon Street? In New Orleans?

    by AsimovLives

  • June 17, 2011, 5:04 p.m. CST

    Bourbon Street, Fusion, The State of the World

    by Coordinate_System

    Yeah. I stayed in New Orleans during my Stennis assignment. The Bourbon street area is quite nice in the day time, but a considerably different place at night. :-) Fusion is a great idea, but it seems perennially 20 years away. Hopefully, they'll get there at some point. As for the world, not to be depressing, but I expect that it will get (much) worse, before it gets better: War, hunger, Trek 12, and other assorted evils.

  • June 18, 2011, 1:47 a.m. CST

    Hey Copernicus . . .

    by DrMorbius

    Will you be writing an article on the science of . . . Mr. Popper's Penguins?

  • June 18, 2011, 5:25 a.m. CST


    by AsimovLives

    Maybe we will be spared Abrams Trek 2. One less evil in this wretched world. Here's to hoping. Yes, 20 years researching Nuclear Fusion and it's still like they have just started yesterday. What's the deal? Lack of funding? Political embargo? What? It's the way of the future,and we are still in the past regarding it's research for practical use.

  • June 18, 2011, 5:27 a.m. CST

    I'd love to see Cpernicus do a The Science Of Armageddon

    by AsimovLives

    His first line would be "Science? What science? There's no science in here!" Then he would write a Bible long description of what's wrong with that movie.

  • Very informative and so damn funny. Yeah, a science book that's also hillarious to read. That's why scientists are so cool.

  • June 18, 2011, 12:31 p.m. CST


    by Coordinate_System has always been easier to destroy than to create.

  • June 18, 2011, 12:37 p.m. CST

    Fusion II

    by Coordinate_System

    Apparently, quotation marks are now problematic... Building up atoms is harder than tearing them down (Fission). QUOTE: has always been easier to destroy than to create. Although, I suspect that entrenched economic interests have interfered in the political process to the detriment of fusion research.

  • June 18, 2011, 1:23 p.m. CST

    Fusion III

    by Coordinate_System

    I was bit hasty in my comments: Fusion, as an energy producing reaction, is harder than Fission, as an energy producing reaction. Energy consuming Fusion reactions are not that difficult:

  • And didn't a late season episode of Star Trek Voyager feature a space elevator?