Author: Katrina Magno

NASA to SpaceX: the Space Race Privatized

Over the several decades that have passed since the Space Race there has been a dramatic decrease in federal support for the nation’s intergalactic sense of manifest destiny. However, it is not that the nation suffers from a lack of curiosity or a decrease in intellectual prowess. The ultimate factor lies within our infrastructure. Changes in the national political climate have made for a tumultuous history for large scale scientific projects. Our lunar touchdown was the product of an efficiently focused national effort during a time when our status as an ingenious and powerful nation was threatened. Today, the idea of space travel and research has become significantly less of a priority, illustrated through the cuts in the NASA budget over the past years. This year, the federal NASA budget is set at $17.7 billion, a decrease of approximately $50 million from the initial 2012 plan. While this budget is enough to sustain several major projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA has had to cut and reduce many promising programs, thus relying on partnerships with other countries, especially Russia and China, in transporting American crew and payload to work at the International Space Station.

Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station. (Image Credit: NASA)

Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station during Expedition 37. (Image Credit: NASA)

As a junior physics major hoping to pursue a career in astrophysics research, I have noticed an underlying theme in the variety of opinions on NASA’s current funding levels. That is the lack of full understanding of the organization’s contributions to immediate technological and medical problems. Much of the technology developed to break the earth’s atmosphere and operate properly in space, has led to several “spinoffs” on earth. For example, the technology used in the space shuttle fuels pumps inspired NASA and heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey to design the miniaturized ventricular assist pump, which is now undergoing European clinical trials and has been successfully implanted within 200 people . Furthermore, technology developed to test the effects of a Martian climate on wind power resulted in 200 NASA-derived Northern Power wind turbines and a decrease in annual carbon emissions by 50,000 tons. Also, much of the data used to monitor the earth’s climate, which is invaluable during emergency situations, originates from NASA. In fact, such geospatial data is now available via the Cloud, due to an agreement with StormCenter Communications. Within the past ten years, the work done by the space agency has resulted in approximately 18,000 jobs created, 444,000 lives saved, and $5.1 million in revenue.

NASA has a strong focus on inspiring and promoting wonder within the general public. Space naturally appeals to the innate childlike curiosity we possess when looking up at the stars. With one child enchanted by a spectacular image of the Milky Way Galaxy, a passionate scientist can evolve. Without this process, how could the nation maintain a strong footing in solving the difficult problems space exploration presents? Yet, last year the sequestration forced NASA to suspend all aspects of their outreach program, causing a ripple of anger amongst much of the public. Though a minute amount of funding is now available, it does not correlate to the realistic amount needed to reach the millions of students within the country, and certainly not to depths the agency is capable of.

My passion and situation in physics are ultimately due to an internship I had at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. During the summer of 2011, I worked in the heliophysics division studying the magnetic interactions between the sun’s interplanetary magnetic field and the earth’s magnetic field. The experience was humbling and slightly overwhelming, as one can imagine. Earlier that year President Obama cancelled the Orion and Antares projects meant to facilitate human low orbit shuttling with the assumption that private space companies would grow large enough to fulfill these needed rolls. The morning of the final mission launch, STS-135, my mentor picked me up at 4:00AM to view it live from campus. As a rising college freshman, it was easy to become fixated on the sadness and disappointment of the ending of something so iconic. Yet, the atmosphere within the auditorium was not mournful, rather, celebratory and hopeful. Every astronaut I met that summer emphasized how their passion began with something they experienced as a child. Now a junior, I often imagine the amazing feeling of fulfillment and excitement one has when achieving a dream so deeply seeded, which motivates me to withstand the trials of college.

Since the retirement of the shuttle program there have been several major changes within the environment of space exploration. First, NASA’s reliance on other countries, especially Russia, has grown. In order to reach the ISS, a join flight must be sent including Russian and American payloads. However, the current Ukrainian conflict and rising international tension with Russia has caused several figures, namely NASA director, Charles F. Bolden Jr., to emphasize the need to eliminate dependence on Russia. In fact, the agency recently declared that it plans to pause “the majority of its ongoing arrangements” but will continue to collaborate at the ISS.

In light of these political events impeding the advancement of space science and technology, it is difficult to envision a prolific future for NASA. This is where, I believe, the second change enters. In recent years, privatized space companies have risen to new heights in rocket development. However, the path to these promising developments is one not free of failure. In 1996 NASA funded Lockheed Martin to design, build, and fly the X-33 rocket with the intention of improving space travel. However, the failure of this program caused monetary losses of approximately $922 million and $357 million for NASA and Lockheed Martin, respectively. After more than a decade, the objective to produce successful privately funded space crafts was achieved. In 2008, NASA announced the results of the second round of their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, thus signing agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, out of the more than twenty firms that applied, to fund their proposals focused on transporting crew and cargo to the ISS. With the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon, SpaceX became the first private organization to successfully launch a spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS. While this was a major success for the state of human space exploration capabilities, the program also highlighted the heavily competitive environment of the market. In the past many firms have failed to develop innovative and successful designs, resulting in massive losses for the owners as well as their respective funders. It clear that the market for privatized space transportation is high risk but high reward.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has proven to be a major, if not the most important, player in the market now, with a history of efficiency and innovation. Though the Falcon 9 and Dragon were not able to transport a crew during the initial launch, the design of the rocket and spacecraft are exceptional. The two stage rocket is propelled by the 9 Merlin engine octaweb, which is capable of producing a power equal to more than five 747s at full power. In order to separate the two segments, Falcon 9 relies on a pneumatic system rather than the traditional pyrotechnic method, thus allowing for more control. During the second stage, only one engine is used; however, it includes the unique and innovative ability to restart periodically, making maneuvering Dragon from different orbits more manageable and efficient. SpaceX is currently working on the adjustments needed to make both suitable for transport of a crew per the NASA agreement.

Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. Image Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

Branching out from the initial Falcon 9 design, the Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket boasting a liftoff thrust equal to fifteen 747s at full power. This is achieved through three 9 Merlin engine octawebs, which also provide the ability to maintain proper flight even after one engine shutdown. It is capable of carrying a payload of 53,000 kg to low earth orbit, which is more than twice the amount a NASA space shuttle can transport. The regular use of this rocket will provide the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and others who can afford it with unprecedented cost efficient and reliable transportation.

The Falcon Heavy is the world's most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

During a visit to GSFC, I was able to meet with Nobel Laureate John Mather Ph.D and inquire as to how he felt about the rise of privatized space companies. His response emphasized a strong support for such firms, as ultimately, NASA spends an extraordinary amount of money on rockets, around $1.6 billion per flight. If SpaceX can develop a standard, cost efficient, design space exploration would only become easier. Per flight, the costs of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy are $56.5 million and $77.1 million-$135 million (geostationary transfer orbit), respectively. Yet, the impressive company has already started work on designing a reusable rocket. The Grasshopper, the experimental 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing vehicle, reached its highest distance of 744m altitude on October 7th, 2013. Afterwards, it was able to hover and land successfully. Living in a community where reusing materials is the go to method of maintaining environmental consciousness, the development of reusable rockets is a major leap towards achieving a balance between advancing human knowledge and being proactively conscious of the state of our environment. It is an enormous challenge to produce rockets and spacecraft that are reliable, efficient, and dramatically cheaper than traditional costs; however, SpaceX has managed to operate well on that thin line of success. Perhaps the firm’s ultimate goal of providing humans with the ability to inhabit other planets will be achieved sooner than estimated.

Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

With this I am reminded of the late Steve Jobs and his famous saying, “one last thing”. It is exciting and inspiring to see this same visionary outlook. As a college student I have noticed a strong need to constantly think ahead. Remaining with the pack is useless, but forcing ahead, taking risks with confidence and creativity is essential for success. The world and its environment are constantly changing and we must be prepared to adapt with them.

Before I end this rather long post, I would like to make a remark on another benefit of privatized space companies. While thousands of jobs have been lost as a result of the NASA budget cuts, communities surrounding the launch sites of SpaceX plan on greatly benefiting from these projects. The latter will create hundreds of jobs, provide internships for students, and attract other major, up and coming, companies. The potential Falcon 9 launch site, Brownsville, TX, is extremely excited but equally focused on confirming their selection. If you would like to read more on this, please refer to their local newspaper, the Valley Morning Star. In a previous post I highlighted the benefits of astrophysics research, beyond the romanticized visions of space. I hope that this post will provide clarity on the current standing of NASA both budget and research wise. The agency has been the pinnacle of human space exploration abilities and continues to conduct extraordinary work on the spatial objects. Its concentration on the earth’s dynamics have provided invaluable data as we learn to adapt our lifestyles. Due to recent political events, there is certainly a need for privatized space companies and it is clear many firms are meeting this challenge. The continued partnership between NASA and companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will lead to major advancements in space exploration. As an aspiring physicist, with research experience in astrophysics and nanotechnology, I look forward to combining both areas to develop technology that can build upon this powerful and incredible progression.


  1. Jones, John. (2011, May 01). Space shuttle spinoffs. Retrieved from
  2. SpaceX. (n.d.). Capabilities and services. Retrieved from
  3. SpaceX. (n.d.). Dragon. Retrieved from
  4. SpaceX. Falcon 9. Retrieved from
  5. SpaceX. (n.d.). Falcon heavy. Retrieved from
  6. Turnbough, L. (2012, March 02). Commercial crew and cargo. Retrieved from
  7. United States. National Aeronautics Space Administration.Budget for Fiscal Year 2014. Web. <>.
Category: Physics, Technology, The Student Blog | 7 Comments

All the Small Things

Humans are always trying to breach the boundaries of the unimaginable. In recent years, thinking big has meant thinking significantly small, 10-9 meters small. Nanotechnology has fascinated many scientists from diverse backgrounds with its possible applications. From medicine to everyday electronics, our capabilities have enabled us to build atom by atom and thus, make enormous strides in science. Yet, this trend should come as no surprise. In 1959, Richard P. Feynman gave what could be seen as the catalyst of the nanotechnology age. In “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” he describes a bottom up way of thinking, building bottom up. Feynman expressed his surprise in the lack of nano scale work while simultaneously providing a waterfall of possible methods and applications.

Now, forwarding to the present day a significant amount of work has been done with nanotechnology. When we play with atoms themselves, we must account for weird outcomes. Probably the most popular example is the carbon nanotube. Imagine a monolayer sheet of carbon rolled into a cylinder. Depending on the parameters of the tube, the strength to density ratio can be quite impressive. This strength is due to the covalent sp 2 bonds between each carbon atom. Moreover, the electrical and thermal properties of these tubes also make it an exciting material. Recently, a research team at Rice University led by professors Junichiro Kono and Matteo Pasquali created wet-spun nanowires out of trillions of carbon nanotubes. These wires have proven superior to copper wires in electrical current carrying capacity, stiffness, and convenience, as it is extremely light and thinner than a strand of human hair. Overall, these fibers can carry four times more current than copper wiring of the same mass.

Scanning electron microscope images of carbon nanowires produced by the Rice group in different gases.

Scanning electron microscope images of carbon nanowires produced by the Rice group in different gases. (Credit: Kono Lab/Rice University)

Scientists have also turned towards nanoribbons composed of graphene, a 2D crystal lattice one atom thick. This material can be considered the “star” of the nanotechnology world, with many scientists working on maximizing the material’s capabilities. Recently, a study led by Georgia Institute of Technology professor, Walt de Heer, presented epitaxial graphene nanonribbons grown on silicon carbide that actually conducts electricity at room temperature ten times better than theoretical predicted. Moreover, compared to exfoliated grapehene, we see an increase in conduction length by 1000 times at an impressive >10 micrometer distance. Interestingly, the nature of the flow of electrons along the sides of these ribbons resembles that of photons through an optical fiber. Sleek when you think of the scattered electron paths inside a standard conductor.

Artist's representation of  electrons (blue) traveling impeded through the graphene, which was grown on silicon carbide (yellow steps). (Credit: John Hankinson/Georgia Tech)

Artist’s representation of electrons (blue) traveling impeded through the graphene, which was grown on silicon carbide (yellow steps). (Credit: John Hankinson/Georgia Tech)

At Notre Dame we have our own Nanofabrication Facility, complete with those flattering clean room gowns. I am currently working on growing my own recipe for a novel semiconductor material using MoS2 and WS2. Though it may seem like graphene has a monopoly on the hearts of scientists and engineers working on nanoelectronics, its lack of a band gap, and subsequent leaking current, restricts its use as semiconductor material. Thus, transition metal oxides and sulfides have come onto the seen due to the band gaps they possess. This results in a decrease in the amount of energy lost as well as the size of the electronics the material will be used in. The most successful method for growth has been chemical vapor deposition, which includes precursors and a substrate. Generally, the precursors are vaporized to combine and depose on the substrate to form the desired substance. One can control the shape and the thickness of the crystals by altering the temperature, pressure, amount of precursor, and time.

University of Notre Dame Nanofabrication Facility. (Credit: University of Notre Dame)

University of Notre Dame Nanofabrication Facility. (Credit: University of Notre Dame)

Even the government has begun to praise the value of wide band gap semiconductors. Earlier this year, President Obama announced the Department of Energy’s new manufacturing innovation institute focused on the proliferation of WBG semiconductors. The main motivation of the institute lies in the environmental benefits that result from the reduction, approximately 75-80%, in electronic heat waste. This is a significant stride in the enthusiasm for nanelectronics as it now resides within the intersection of science and government.

Illustration of the energy efficiency benefits and other implications of wide band gap semiconductors. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

Illustration of the energy efficiency benefits and other implications of wide band gap semiconductors. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

Nanotechnology obviously has an outstanding future in electronics, but I should also mention some of its medical promises. Scientists have worked with nanoshell solutions and lasers to replace traditional suturing as well as with nanowires that can electronically identify the proteins present during the early signs of cancer. Though I could list many medical studies in this one post, and I encourage the interested reader to look through the many online papers, I believe it is better to highlight a recent development that is both amazing and creepy. A group at the Pennsylvania State University has, for the first time, succeeded in placing gold-ruthenium nanomotors into living HeLa cells. Through the use of ultrasonic waves, the team was able to magnetically control the motors and watch as they interact with the cellular membranes. As uncomfortable as it is to think of several of these tiny bots constantly playing bumper cars with your cells, the ramifications of this breakthrough are actually quite inspiring. Using this nanotechnology we have better chances of targeting and destroying cancers cells, improving patient diagnosis, delivering noninvasive drugs, and even performing cellular surgery.

Scientists at Pennsylvania State University were able to insert nanomotors into living HeLa cells and guide their movements for the first time.

Scientists at Pennsylvania State University were able to insert nanomotors into living HeLa cells and guide their movements for the first time. (Credit: Mallouk Lab/ Penn State)

Scientists and engineers are often asked to predict the future of technology. Where will we be in 50 years? Will science fiction become a norm? Even companies have taken it upon themselves to give the public a taste of their compelling, though somewhat ambitious future predictions. Samsung has been boasting their flexible screens for a little over a year now and yet; none of these products have come onto the market. Ultimately, we have not refined these products well enough. Time is still needed to make these tech dreams come true.

As a junior physics major, still dreaming of a lab of my very own, I am excited with where science and engineering is headed. We now have the capabilities to manipulate atoms; we can now be more creative than ever. The brilliant minds before us were able to combine materials into products that advanced our lifestyles as well as our knowledge of the surrounding Universe. With nanotechnology the current generation of scientists and engineers can use the inventions of the past to create new and better materials. Combine child like curiosity and imagination with mature scientific knowledge and mankind experiences ingenious discoveries.



  1.  Baringhaus, J., & Ruan, M. (2014). Exceptional ballistic transport in epitaxial graphene nanoribbons. Nature, Retrieved from
  2. Feynman, R. P. (1959). Plenty of room at the bottom. Retrieved from
  3. Gibney, E. (2014, February 06). Graphene conducts electricity ten times better than expected. Retrieved from
  4. Kahn, J. (2006, June). Nano’s big future. National Geographic, Retrieved from
  5. U.S. Energy Department. (2014, January 16). Next-generation power electronics: Reducing energy waste and powering the future. Retrieved from
  6. Weidner, K. (2014, February 10). Nanomotors are controlled, for the first time, inside living cells. Retrieved from
  7. Williams, M. (2014, February 13). Rice’s carbon nanotube fibers outperform copper. Retrieved from




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Making the Silent Heard and the Obscure Tangible: Black Hole Coalescence

In this vast Universe we cannot begin to comprehend the amount of entities within it or the amount of which we do not understand. One of the most extraordinary objects that physicists have only a shallow grasp of is the black hole. To put this into perspective, imagine an entity that is so dense, it bends the curvature of space and time so that light cannot escape its pull. Even Einstein himself could not believe this elegant Universe could contain something so strange, though his own Theory of Relativity suggested it. Yet, not only have their existences been implied, they have also been observed.

Since Einstein’s time, we have accepted black holes and physicists are now attempting to make sense of these oddities. As of now, we understand that there is a point within the hole called the singularity, where all the mass of the black hole is located.  What could this singularity be made of? How large is this point? If an object, including light, finds itself too close to the hole and passes the event horizon it is all over. The mission cannot be aborted. Though I will not cover all the BH theories within this post, that would certainly take a while, I would recommend the eager student to read “Black Holes & Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” by Kip Thorne, a book suggested to me by an astrophysicist during my time at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Let’s take a step back and analyze this entity from the surface. It is possible for black holes to coalesce and form a new, larger, hole. This can also happen when galaxies merge. As a student, I am amazed to read the many papers already published on these events. Every single branch of physics is needed to understand the mechanics of black hole coalescence and galaxy mergers. When we think of such violent and messy events, it can be difficult to believe that no sound can be detected within the vacuum of space. However, I recently found out that the gravitational waves that are produced by the black hole could be detected and if one had a detector close enough, could be heard.

When the two black holes merge, the system loses angular momentum to gravitational radiation and the coalescing process begins. First, an adiabatic inspiral, which includes a prolonged gravitational radiation timescale compared to the orbital period of the system. This radiation reaction force is cause by electromagnetic radiation on accelerating charged particles. Eventually, the orbit becomes relativistically dynamically unstable and the waves are emitted. During the second phase, the orbit transitions from being radiation reaction driven to violent free falling. This is called the merger phase, releasing gravitational waves that may reveal the unknowns of the dynamics of relativistic gravity in high dynamic environments (Flanagan & Hughes, 1997).  This final inspiral is the most luminous gravitational waves in the Universe.

Image Credit: NASA GSFC

Image Credit: NASA GSFC

Sound travels as waves through a medium, like air and water. When it reaches the ear, the drum vibrates. Powerful gravitational waves and produce the same effect, in that these waves rippled through space-time, stretching and compressing the curvature.  TED talks are probably one of the best sources new and inspirational ideas and I recently watched one by Professor Janna Levin from Barnard College. Her lab was able to produce a model of the “Soundtrack of the Universe”. I highly recommend watching it. It is wonderfully informative. Indeed, we can learn a lot about the Theory of Relativity and the formation of black holes by analyzing the waves emitted by coalescing holes.

Soundtrack of the Universe

the Sound the Universe Makes by Janna Levin

All the current work on black holes have made a science fiction like object become more tangible and less obscure. As an astrophysics major, that is an inspiring thing. 


Flanagan, É. É. and Hughes, S. A., 1997, Measuring gravitational waves from binary black hole coalescences: I. The waves’ information and its extraction, with and without templates.

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Astrophysics Through a Student’s Eyes

At some point in our childhoods, most of us idolized astronauts, pasted glow-in-the-dark stars to our ceilings, or delighted in imagining a face on the moon. From birth we see one of our most innate human characteristics, our advanced and broad curiosity; the sort of face-up thinking that does not acknowledge bounds. Like many revered scientists have expressed, it is this childlike imagination bolstered by mature scientific knowledge that makes for the most remarkable research. However, in today’s economic climate, funding for scientific research is difficult to come by and many federal institutes find it difficult to complete projects on lowered funding. With this in mind, many have asked, “what significance does astrophysics play amongst areas focused on solving immediate problems?”.

Focusing on internal issues does not lessen the reality of external problems. The Universe is vast and, as recently discovered, is accelerating in its expansion. Thus, there is an incomprehensible amount of entities within it, Earth being but less than a spec. As many parents have emphasized, being aware of one’s surroundings is vital. Now, such concern may seem to be something found within in a science-fiction novel, but consider the time span of the human civilization’s survival. If mankind were to survive 1000 more years, what variables would we have to include in the equation? Internal conflict, environmental conditions, and effects of objects in space. The latter may refer to our Sun, asteroids, and comets.  For our capabilities to deepen in the case of each of the three variables, time is needed. Cures are rarely found in a day. The solution to renewable energy is still ongoing. Thus, it is logical, that preparing Earth against the effects from space will also take time and should be continuously worked on. Moreover, understanding the behavior of objects in outer space, such as exoplanet research, may provide more options for mankind’s future.

Much of the technology written about in past science fiction is now the technology of the present. Thus, our dependence on orbiting satellites is immense. How could we easily navigate to an unfamiliar address, communicate with others thousands of miles away so conveniently, or access our favorite televisions programs without them? In a society that is so greatly dependent on these capabilities, a disruption in their functioning may result in a negatively dramatic effect. The major source of disruption is the Sun, which carries, in its solar flares, an interplanetary magnetic field. When it reconnects with the Earth’s magnetic field, plasma particles are injected into the Earth’s magnetosphere. These events, depending on the orientation of connection, can result in an auroral display and/or significant magnetic disturbances. Therefore, it is vital to understand how satellites will be affected by these events and make designs to protect them.

In truth, much of the reasoning for funding astrophysics research stems from the innate curiosity and passion for understanding our surrounding Universe. The human mind is not restricted to trivial thoughts. It can expand by looking down far enough to see the very particles that make up matter, or it can look up to see that Earth is just a spec in the entire architecture of the known Universe. It is important to keep and maintain this human desire to expand the bounds of knowledge. It is a defining characteristic of advanced thinking. Take for example, the nuclear reactions that occur within stars. By understanding the inner workings of an object hundreds of light years away, we are able to model and recreate such processes to develop nuclear power plants. Calculus underlies an enormous amount of technology, as it is important to understanding electricity and magnetism. Sir Isaac Newton invented this area of mathematics, when he was asked to provide the reasoning behind Kepler’s Laws for planetary motion, using only the known physical laws of gravity and motion. Indeed, much of what can be learned from objects in outer space can be applied to those on Earth and vice versa.

As students, our learning is partitioned into majors, creating the illusion of compartmentalized, mono-disciplinary fields in science. However, through my time as a developing astrophysicist, I am increasingly convinced that the Universe is indeed one entity, only understandable when the entire system is understood. To claim one field more productive than the other is to view an incomplete picture. The beauty, as in all things, lies in the appreciation of the whole. The elegant Universe is only such because of its ability to balance all areas of science contained within it.

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