Pre-hispanic America birthed sophisticated theories in ancient astronomy. The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas possessed tables, calendars, and exquisitely precise systems to describe and determine the movement of planets, stars, celestial objects, and constellations. Even the Olmecs, which predated all three ancient empires, left artifacts that stump one and many archeologists about their precise knowledge about the stars. Today, modern-day scientists and engineers remain puzzled about the architectural and technical feats of the ancient empires in the Americas, which mirrored an unprecedented astronomical precision.
Despite the rich cultural, astronomical, and engineering legacies from three powerful pre-hispanic empires, a testament to the creative achievement across the region, only a handful of scientists and engineers in Latin America have participated in modern space missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
Time Machine (2017). Marco Vargas.
This story is about the rekindling of the fire in Latin America that can be traced for millennia. This story is about those daring to deploy a small propellantless mission to reach Jupiter in less time. Currently, any round trip to Jupiter would take numerous years and deeper pockets and budgets, so the success in reaching Jupiter quickly and without propellant could change our understanding of what it means to travel across vast distances in our Solar System at a fraction of the cost.
The Jupiter Observing Velocity Experiment (JOVE) is a novel solar-powered mission that will use the solar wind's momentum, speed, and direction as the propulsive thrust to reach the Jovian system in 30 days. Solar winds are the surges of plasma and ionized (charged) gas continuously emitted by the Sun, which vary in intensity, density, and composition but are always present across the expanse of the solar system.
JOVE is proposed by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers in the United States and Latin America (Ecuador and Costa Rica). They compose the Practical Interplanetary Propulsion group at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Nuclear Future Flight Propulsion Committee.
JOVE rendering. Image credits: B. Freeze, J. Greason, R. Nader et al.
JOVE will be designed with a compact 16U micro satellite architecture that includes two high-temperature superconducting coils 9-meters in diameter. These coils are responsible for engaging the “Wind Rider” propulsion system. The Wind Rider system has been experimentally demonstrated on the ground. For the mission, the spacecraft would use the superconducting coils to generate a large rotating magnetic field (RMF) that interacts with the solar wind for thrust and Jupiter’s dense magnetosphere for deceleration.
Most of JOVE’s hardware will be built by the Ecuadorian Civil Space Agency (EXA), which has ample experience designing powerful and compact hardware for the Cubesat market, including one of the highest energy density batteries for Cubesats(350Whr). This type of battery will operate the telemetry beacon to measure and transmit data. In addition, the small scientific payload will include the SPAN-Ai sensor developed at the University of California, Berkeley, to study the solar wind’s velocity and the dense plasma in Jupiter’s magnetosphere. It will also include a rearview camera to capture Jupiter.
JOVE’s schematics. Image credits: B. Freeze, J. Greason, R. Nader et al.
JOVE’s launch must occur when Jupiter is directly in opposition to the Sun on November 2, 2023, or December 7, 2024, to engage the Wind Rider propulsion system without a gravitational slingshot (gravity assist). After that, JOVE can get deployed into cis-lunar orbit or from an apogee of 60 - 90K km Sun-side by a traditional rocket launcher. Once in space, JOVE activates the RMF inside the two coils and deploys the solar panel arrays and the sunshade (to protect the coils at a certain distance). The team expects JOVE’s Wind Rider to speed up the spacecraft to a velocity close to 300 km s-1.
JOVE rendering. Image credits: B. Freeze, J. Greason, R. Nader et al.
There is no shortcut to becoming a spacefaring species. Advancing in-space propulsion is at the heart of becoming multiplanetary. According to Commander Ronnie Nader, we need to start building and testing practical propulsion systems that can take us to the outer planets in considerably less time and at substantially less cost. Commander Nader is Ecuador's first and only cosmonaut, the first civilian in modern history to complete the cosmonaut training at the GCTC (ASA / T degree - Advanced Suborbital Astronaut Trained) with the support of the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE). He founded the Ecuadorian Civil Space Agency (EXA) with headquarters in Guayaquil after his training in 2007 and has served as its Space Operations Director. Nader holds multiple senior memberships at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) Space Security Committee, and the International Academy of Astronautics, among many others.
In 2019, Nader created the Practical Interplanetary Propulsion working group at the AIAA Nuclear and Future Propulsion Committee to develop advanced propulsion systems with realistic timeframes. Nader's inspiration stemmed from his professional and entrepreneurial experience in Latin America. Without the million-dollar budgets and infrastructure for advanced scientific pursuits in space, Nader has had to be resourceful and creative with what's available.
Nader recruited the rest of the Practical Interplanetary Propulsion Group team at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. They started working on different concepts and followed specific rules. The group's rules can be summarized as follows: any revolutionary concept must be mathematically proven and built on precedents that have been simulated, made, or tested on the ground and in space. But, more importantly, the group must use the proven laws of modern physics.
“It’s important to point out that the planets do not grow. The population does,” said Nader. “Furthermore, everything the planet produces is the limit of human ambition. But this doesn’t have to be true. The solar system’s riches could change how we live from a single-planet economy to a multiplanetary one. These riches could redefine the concept of poverty until it becomes obsolete, but only if we could reach it. In practical terms, the current challenge of the space business is that it takes a decade for any roundtrip. We need to make it affordable so that it’s possible to finance it. So, as a growing species that will soon be fully occupying its ecological niche, why don’t we consider the treasures in the Solar System within our reach? A single mineral could greatly impact Latin America’s economic development.”
Nader points out the obvious. Businesses may quickly go out of business without any profit. For even the most open-minded investors, entrepreneurs, and potential customers, the long-term mindset implicit in a multiplanetary economy might still be too far out. JOVE’s test in space will be a stepping stone for the team seeking to reframe the conversation from deep space as a luxury to deep space as a necessity for an increasingly energy-hungry civilization. This reframing will require adjusting the perceptions that only traditional space agencies and large, well-funded corporations can deploy complex science missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
For the Latin America region rich in finite natural resources and precious minerals, including lithium, and salt, among many others, the opportunity to venture into the vast beyond at an affordable rate would seem like an easy sell. Unfortunately, however, it is not necessarily the case.
“Rocketry has always been considered the default solution for interplanetary travel. However, throughout humanity's space history, many technical and engineering decisions have had political connotations or interests tied to it at the expense of practicality. We want to remain loyal to the engineering and scientific design as initially intended, and with the freedom of choosing to stay independent.”
The team expects to fund JOVE’s launch with funds from the private sector.
For Jaime Jaramillo, making an interplanetary science mission for Latin America practical is vital. Jaramillo is the Space Operations Deputy Director of the EXA, and the CEO of the Quantum Aerospace Research Institute – QAS with its base in Quito.
“It’s an honor to work in this group, specifically looking at practical propulsion systems for the Solar System. Consider how we could develop quicker the mining exploration missions bringing minerals back to Earth. It can be a great business for anyone in the region who wants to invest in it.”
Jaramillo has already witnessed the value of transferring knowledge by working on JOVE.
“Currently, deep space telecommunications are spearheaded by just a couple of systems tied to established space agencies, for example, NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) and Near Space Network (Near Space Network). But booking and scheduling in these systems, which traditionally have served only a handful of missions, presents a logistical nightmare as they don’t scale well. The waiting times for booking a slot often translate into many decades. So, a practical application of interplanetary travel means we must start working independently on ground systems independent of these large and established systems. That is something we have already learned just by working on JOVE’s design because, at EXA, we go all the way when we get involved. The lessons learned are already useful for the future, making our focus on this mission significant.”
Adolfo Chaves Jiménez, a space systems engineer, professor, and researcher in Costa Rica, is part of JOVE’s navigation team — an essential and challenging mission component. The spacecraft’s orientation directly and profoundly influences its dynamics, navigation, and control. Without propellant, JOVE will navigate at high speeds with the solar wind’s varying parameters making JOVE’s maneuverability particularly difficult to anticipate. Many parameters necessary to generate practical navigation will only be known when the mission is launched.
Chaves has expertise in both spacecraft orientation and orbital dynamics. Despite the unknowns, his role as part of the navigation team is to develop and monitor the onboard sensors that will determine direction throughout the mission and orbital mission software to ensure JOVE reaches its final destination.
“There are many things that we have to solve from the conceptual and technological point of view,” explained Chaves. “But we're using the proven principles and systems that already exist to apply an efficient design mindset and test it.”
For Chaves, the Internet and the advancements in computation, software, and simulation have changed how space professionals collaborate and get trained. Proximity is no longer a deterrent to working effectively with others.
“I believe that skill and capacity for high-level space missions are evenly distributed worldwide. JOVE shows that many professionals in Latin America possess the same levels of competitive expertise as in other geographies. In fact, problem-solving for many of us in Latin America requires being highly creative and extremely practical, given the limitations in budgets and access to infrastructure. So there is a lot of scope in design and creativity because this type of efficient design is aimed at some particular aspects, and working on it will not be deterred by your nationality as in the case of working for only space agencies or in certain localities.”
Chaves spoke about a deeply ingrained cultural and financial block that prevents space science and research from flourishing in the region. Part of this block, according to Chaves, relates to the feelings of being ill-equipped or unprepared in comparison to the more established spacefaring nations. However, Argentina and Brazil’s history shows how forward-thinking scientists and engineers pioneered critical advances early in the 1950s, given the tools and equipment available at the time and sometimes alongside those in the United States.
“I believe it’s innately human to explore. It’s a dream come true to work on shortening the distances between planets and influence humanity’s understanding of access to the solar system. The field, for me, has always been a demonstration test that reflects a society’s development at a particular time. In Latin America, we can be at the same level as others in industrialized nations because we can be very creative and do innovative things beyond solving beautiful technical problems.”
Time Machine (2017). Marco Vargas.
I have noticed that although the region’s space footprint still suffers from the silos in the financing, a lack of talent is not the problem. Nader, Jaramillo, and Chaves have been pioneering multiple regional efforts to make space research and development accessible. I have written about their plans to launch an all-Latin American suborbital flight crew (LATCOSMOS-C) and a quantum network in space.
The JOVE team, including Nader et al., and the recognized researchers in the United States, will be uniquely positioned to leverage their expertise and broader networks to make this mission happen. Everyone can dream, but only those who dare to achieve will execute their plans.
Artist Marco Vargas from the Santo Domingo province in Ecuador has been designing for more than seven years. Inspired by the mysteries and novelty of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the known universe, Vargas created the short motion graphics, Time Machine (2017).
“It’s awe-inspiring to see how art and technology go hand in hand,” said Vargas. “Art offers a disruptive and prophetic vision of how the future will be while possibly anticipating countless possible scenarios in which science and technology are part of that reality written or illustrated by the artist. I would love to see a revolution in the space and technology fields in Latin America so that the region becomes more involved in proposing, developing, and creating technological assets that help accelerate growth and add value to this growing industry.”
Full disclosure: I don't have any vested financial interests in the companies or projects discussed in this article at the time of publication (June 2022). I don't entertain affiliate marketing offers or paid endorsements that would influence my research for the article.
If you've enjoyed reading this work, allow me to invite you to my indie space blog MONI-07B. It's ad-free, supported by readers like you, and, more importantly, showcases original research and artwork. Read more about why this is important. Be inspired by the possibilities of our future in space! Subscribe today.