It’s been a long time since I wrote about the X-37B, originally NASA’s but now the Department of Defense’s secretive space plane, and that’s mostly because there’s not been a whole lot to report.The secret nature of its mission means that no details about its payload are readily available and unlike the first time it was launched it’s been behaving itself, staying within its own orbit. Still that didn’t stop the Internet from going on a rampage of speculation, the highlight of it being the ludicrous idea that it was spying on China’s efforts in space. However over the weekend it returned from its orbit around the earth after a staggering 2 years on orbit.
Now 2 years might not sound like a long time, especially when the Voyager satellites are pushing 35+ years, however for a craft of this type such a record is a pretty significant advancement. Most capsules and spacecraft that had downrange capacity (I.E. they can bring stuff back) usually have endurances of a couple weeks. Even the venerable shuttle could only last a couple weeks in orbit before things started to get hairy, even if it was docked to the International Space Station. With the X-37B able to achieve an endurance of 2 years without too much of a struggle is a pretty impressive achievement and raises some interesting questions about what its true purpose might be.
The official stance is that it’s a test platform for a whole host of new space technologies like navigational systems, autonomous flight and so on. Indeed from what we’ve seen of the craft it certainly contains a lot of these features as it was able to land itself without human intervention just last week. It’s small payload bay nods towards some other potential purposes (the favourite speculation is satellite retrieval) but it’s most likely just used to house special equipment that will be tested over the duration of the flight. There’s potential for it to house some observational equipment but the DoD already has multiple in-orbit satellites for that purpose and unlike spy satellites of the past (which used film) there’s no real need for downrange capabilities in them any more.
Unfortunately any technological innovations contained within the X-37B are likely to stay there as NASA hasn’t been involved in the X-37B project since it handed it over. It’s disappointing really considering that the DoD has a budget for space activities that equals NASA’s entire budget and there’s definitely a lot of tech in there that they could make use of. Thankfully the private space industry is developing a lot of tech along similar lines so hopefully NASA and its compatriots will have access to similar capabilities in the not too distant future.
Maybe one day we’ll find out the true purpose of the X-37B much like we did with Hexagon. Whilst the story might be of the mundane the technology powering things like Hexagon never ceases to amaze me. If the X-37B is truly a test platform for new kinds of space tech then there’s likely things on there that are a generation ahead of where we are today. We may never know, but it’s always interesting to let your mind wonder about these things.
The spacesuit of today is much the same as the one of the last few decades. It’s an incredibly complicated device, combining all the systems necessary to keep an astronaut alive in the vacuum of space into a wearable package. However it’s not the easiest thing to use, often requiring extensive training not only to get familiar with it but also to train your muscles in how to use it. This is mostly because the design, which makes even the slimmest astronaut look something like the Michelin Man, is centred on ensuring that the pressure on the astronaut’s body is kept constant. This is currently done using an inflated lining which is quite restrictive however future designs, like the one from MIT, could provide the same protection whilst giving astronauts far more freedom.
Our bodies are accustomed to 1 atmosphere of pressure which, on the grand scheme of things, really isn’t that much. Indeed the difference between what we’d consider normal pressure and a complete vacuum is about the same as going 10m under water, something SCUBA divers do on a regular basis. However the trick is ensuring that that pressure stays consistent and constant over your entire body which is what led to the spacesuits today. Interestingly though it doesn’t matter how that pressure is generated so the traditional method can easily be replaced with something that’s mechanical in nature, which is what the new BioSuit from MIT seeks to do.
Instead of covering the astronaut’s body in what amounts to dozens of inflated pillows the BioSuit instead looks to use Shape Memory Alloys (think nitinol wire, if you’ve ever played with it) to provide the pressure. Essentially they’d have a full body tourniquet that would be embedded with this wire and, upon heating, it would contract around the astronaut’s body, providing the required pressure. How that pressure would be maintained is still a problem they’re working out (as keeping the astronaut heating constantly isn’t exactly ideal) but seem to be making good progress with various clip designs that would keep the suit tight over the duration of a spacewalk. They’d still have to have the traditional fish bowl on the head however as employing a system like this on the head wouldn’t really be feasible.
Whilst a suit like this wouldn’t provide complete freedom of movement (think a wetsuit that feels like it’s a size too small) it would be a vast improvement over the current design. Right now every time an astronaut wants to move a part of their body they essentially have to compress the protective bubble of gas in their suit, something which ends up being extremely tiring over the course of a long duration spacewalk. A design like this would likely require far less energy to manipulate whilst also allowing them to move a lot more freely, significantly reducing the time they’d need to spend outside.
For me though it’s just yet another piece of sci-fi making its way into reality as we’ve long dreamed of spacesuits that would be like a second skin to its wearers. Better still it’s being made with technology that we have available to us today and so no exotic material sciences is required to bring it to fruition. We likely won’t see any astronauts wearing them any time soon (the cycles for these things are on the order of decades) but as time goes on I think it’ll be inevitable that we’ll move to suits like this, just because of the vast number of advantages they offer.
After their initial flurry of activity launches over 7 years ago Bigelow Aerospace has become rather quiet, cancelling its 2 further prototypes and pursuing other activities. Presumably this was because they were a little ahead of their time as there just wasn’t any private (or public even) launch systems available to take would be space tourists to any of their modules. This, combined with them reducing their staff a couple years ago, meant that their requirements to deliver additional prototypes into space were dramatically reduced and they have instead been focusing on developing their technology with NASA. Now it seems, after almost a decade since their first launch, Bigelow will be making their return into space next year with the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
The BEAM is probably derived from Bigelow’s Galaxy craft as it shares much of the same characteristics as that prototype was slated to have. Comparatively it’s a small part of the ISS, coming in with 16m³ worth of liveable volume, but it will contain all the elements necessary to support astronauts on orbit. For the most part it will be a demonstration and testing module, designed to measure things like leakage rates, radiation exposure levels and testing all the systems required to maintain it. The total mission duration is set for 2 years with the astronauts only entering it on occasion. The results from this will likely end up heavily influencing Bigelow’s next module, the behemoth of the BA330.
The total cost of the module is, by ISS standards, a steal coming in at just over $17 million. Although this doesn’t include the launch cost which, considering that it’s on the back of a Falcon-9, would likely be around $54 million putting the total cost at about $71 million. Still even if the further missions doubled the cost of the module you’d still be looking at an incredibly cheap way to add liveable volume to the ISS, something which is very much at a premium up there. More though it makes Bigelow’s Commercial Space Station seem that much more feasible as previously the amount of capital required just to get their modules into space was very cost prohibitive.
The BEAM module won’t be a one shot wonder, however. Bigelow plans to build another one of the modules to serve as an airlock on its future space station which would allow up to 3 astronauts (or more likely, space tourists) to space walk at a time. The ISS can currently handle only 2 astronauts at a time so it’s definitely a step up and I can imagine NASA acquiring another BEAM type module in the future if they were looking to expand the ISS’ operations. It might not sound like much but it could drastically reduce the amount of spacewalking time that astronauts have to undertake, which can sometimes be up to 10 hours at a time.
It’s great to see Bigelow back in the game again with firm timelines for delivering modules into space. The fact that they’ll be delivering capability to the ISS is even better as there’s huge potential for NASA to increase the lifetime of our only space station using Bigelow’s technology. Whilst no space launch date is ever set in stone I’m hopeful that we’ll see BEAM attached to the ISS in the not too distant future and, hopefully, the BA330 not too long thereafter.
When you think of space faring nations India probably isn’t one of the first to come to mind but they’re fast becoming one of the big players in terms of capability. Their space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), began back in 1975 and has primarily focused on developing both launch and satellite capabilities. They made headlines back in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1 which was their first satellite to visit another celestial body. Every year since then has seen India launch multiple satellites every year, with the vast majority of them blasting to orbit aboard their very own Satellite Launch Vehicle brand of rockets. Last week saw them tick off another incredible milestone: their first interplanetary mission arriving successfully at its destination.
The Mars Orbiter Mission (or Mangalyaan) is a comparatively small craft, weighing in at just on 500 kgs with only 15kg of that being dedicated to the various payloads it’s carrying. It’s primarily a technology demonstration mission, designed to provide a shakedown for the various systems required to maintain an interplanetary mission. Thus the payload of the mission is relatively simple, consisting of some atmospheric and particle sensors along with your standard imaging affair, although it does have the rather interesting capability of being able to radically change its orbit over time. Just the fact that India has joined the rather exclusive club of nations that have sent craft to Mars (3 total, now) would be noteworthy in of itself but there’s one more thing that makes MOM noteworthy.
A typical Mars mission usually costs on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, usually tickling the billion dollar mark when all things are considered. The Phoenix Lander, for instance, cost about $386 million and was considered to be quite cheap as it reused a lot of technology from other projects. MOM however was done for a total budget of $74 million including launch costs making it the cheapest interplanetary mission by any nation to date. A lot of this comes down to the simplicity of the mission however a big part of it is the fact that their launch vehicle costs around $19 million per launch, a cost that rivals even that of SpaceX’s Falcon launch system. If ISRO is able to keep their costs at this level there’s every chance that other nations will look to them to provide launch capabilities like this in the future.
Even though MOM is a simple craft it has the capability to provide extremely useful data like its predecessor Chandrayaan-1 did. The instruments might be few in number but the data they provide will function as a validation point for all the missions that have come before it, ensuring that the models we’ve developed for Mars are still valid. Having another set of eyes on Mars means that we’ll be able to catch many more of the geological phenomenon in action that we’ve seen in the past which will provide us even more insight into how its environment is changing, even today.
It always amazes me to see how rapidly space capability is being developed not only by private industry but also nation states. Exploring space is an incredibly expensive affair, one that seemingly doesn’t contribute to the nation’s economy directly, but the benefits always outstrip any cost that follows them. For India the ROI is going to be amazing as they’ve built a capability that took other nations decades and several billion dollars to achieve. I’m very excited to see what they accomplish next and whether or not they can continue the tradition of doing it far cheaper than anyone else.
The boom that 3D printing has experienced over the past couple years has been nothing short of astonishing. The industry started off as predominately as a backyard engineering operation, designing machines that’s sole purpose was to be able to print another one of itself, but it quickly escalated into the market we know today. Indeed it seems even the most wildest predictions about how it would revolutionize certain industries have come true with leading engineering companies adopting 3D printers for both prototyping and full blown production developments. With that in mind it was only a matter of time before one of them was bound for the International Space Station and yesterday SpaceX launched the first 3D printer to be based in space.
The printer, made by Made in Space, isn’t simply a stock standard model that’s been gussied up to work on the ISS. It’s been specifically designed to work in the microgravity environment in low earth orbit, undergoing thousands of simulated zero-g tests (presumably on one of NASA’s vomit comets). Whilst the specifications might not be exactly astounding when compared to some of the printers available down here on earth, it only has a print volume of 5cm x 10cm x 5cm with ABS plastic, it has the potential to be quite revolutionary for NASA, not to mention 3D printing at large.
One of the worst things about space travel is having to bring everything you need with you as there’s really no manufacturing capability to speak of in space. A 3D printer however provides the opportunity to ship up bulk supplies, in this case large reels of ABS plastic, which have a much greater density than the parts created with them will have. This drastically reduces the cost and complexity of shipping things up into space and provides a greater opportunity to create things in-orbit that might not be feasible to ship up otherwise. Of course whether or not 3D printing will be viable in space is another question, one which this device will attempt to answer.
There’s a lot of use for 3D printed plastic parts on the ISS, notably pretty much any small clip or connector on the interior of the craft, however I feel that the real usefulness of 3D printer will come when they can print with metal. Right now there’s no good solutions for doing that via the extruder (although there are a few out there using solder, which doesn’t have the greatest construction properties) as most use the powder bed sintering process. As you can probably guess having a bunch of powder in a microgravity environment isn’t going to work out too well so I’ll be interested to see how future space based 3D printers deal with metal and other materials.
It’s really quite exciting to see developments like this as there’s an incredible amount of opportunity for 3D printing to revolutionize several aspects of space travel. Indeed for long duration missions, one where component failure is a real risk, these kinds of in-orbit manufacturing capabilities are a necessity. Whilst we won’t be mass producing spacecraft parts in orbit any time soon these are the first few baby steps needed to developing that capability.
And wouldn’t you know it Planetary Resources already has partnerships in that direction. I should have guessed!
As of right now there’s only one way to get humans into space: on board a Russian Soyuz craft. It’s an incredibly reliable spacecraft, and probably one of the longest serving spacecraft ever, however it’s ability to only send up 3 astronauts at a time does limit it’s capabilities. Couple that with the fact that the going rate for a seat on one of them is about $70 million you can imagine why there’s an imperative on NASA to find another way to get themselves up there. Whilst there’s been a lot of internal work to develop the next generation of crew transportation NASA has realised that the private space industry will very soon have that capability. To that effect they created the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) award, a $6.8 billion dollar contract to provide crew transportation services.
Today they announced the winners: SpaceX and Boeing.
The contract split gives $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing. Considering NASA’s long relationship with Boeing it’s not surprising that they got a larger chunk of the pie (and the fact that they’ve already sunk about half a billion into the program already) however I’m sure SpaceX won’t be unhappy with that much business coming their way. Both companies are already well underway with their respective crew transports, Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon, which is likely why they were chosen in the first place. This program won’t replace the work that’s currently being done by NASA with the Orion capsule (under contract with Lockheed Martin) and will instead function as a supplement to that capability.
Being awarded work under CCTCap isn’t all roses however as NASA is looking to have at least one of the capsules up and running by 2017. That largely lines up with the timelines that SpaceX has for their Dragon capsule, with the first flights scheduled for late next year with crewed missions to follow shortly after. As to how that fits with the current CST-100 schedule is less clear as whilst there’s been some mockup tests done a couple years ago I haven’t seen much progress on it since. Boeing isn’t the same kind of company that SpaceX is though so there’s every possibility that the CST-100 is just as far along its development pipeline as the Dragon is. Still the CCTCap only calls for one of them to be ready by that time and if I was a betting man my money would be on SpaceX.
Both company’s solutions are of the reusable capsule variety which might seem a step backwards but it’s actually the smarter way to do space travel, especially if cost is a primary factor. The Space Shuttle, whilst iconic in its shape and unmatched in its capabilities, was a compromise between far too many objectives that were at odds with each other. If you’re goal is just getting people up and down then capsules are the way to go. It will be interesting to see if the economies of scale kick in with these craft as the Dragon is designed to be launched many times per year and the CST-100 can be reused up to 10 times before it needs a full teardown.
Needless to say this is an incredibly exciting announcement. I’ve long been of the mind that NASA should leave things like this to the private companies who can deliver the same service at a much better price without compromising on saftey. That then leaves them free to do the big picture stuff that will inspire the next generation, the kinds of things that we all remember the NASA name for. The CCTCap is the first step towards them rekindling that spirit and, as an avid space geek, that makes me so wonderfully happy.
It seems I can’t go too long without hearing about everyone’s favourite celestial event: the Supermoon. It’s a somewhat rare event, typically occurring once every 14 months or so, but given the amount of attention it seems to get on various news and social media sites you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s more akin to a total solar eclipse. Considering what actually happens during this event, I.E. the coincidental alignment of the moon being full whilst also being at it’s closest point on its orbit around Earth, you wouldn’t expect there to be much interest in it but everyone seems to be wowed at just how huge the moon appears when this happens.
Problem is though that it’s not that much bigger at all.
As you can see the supermoon on the right hand side isn’t really that much bigger than the more regular moon on the left. Indeed if I could somehow show you both of them in the sky at the same time you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. Still come tomorrow morning I’m sure there’ll be dozens of pictures showing the moon in all of its super glory, towering over buildings and dwarfing every other source of light in the night sky. So the question is then where do all these pictures come from and why is the moon so gosh darn huge in them.
The answer is somewhat complicated, and we don’t have an exact answer for it yet, but it comes down to something we’ve dubbed the Moon Illusion. Essentially any stellar object in our sky, be it the moon, sun or even stars, will increase in apparent size the closer it is to the horizon. All those amazing pictures you’ll see of supermoons around the globe tomorrow will likely be taken when the moon is rising when this effect is at its most pronounced. This makes the moon appear much, much bigger than it would normally but over the course of it’s full rotation it’ll begin shrinking back down to a more reasonable size. This is why you don’t see any pictures of it up in the middle of the sky, it just doesn’t look as massive as it would otherwise.
Photographers are also somewhat guilty of exacerbating the moon’s super-ness during this time by using telephoto lenses that compress the visual space significantly, often putting other objects near or in front of it to make it appear much bigger than it would with your eyes. Don’t get me wrong it makes for a stunning picture but it also feeds into the idea that the moon appears that huge at all points in the sky. The reality is unfortunately nothing like that.
I know I’m probably being a killjoy for some people mentioning this but honestly things like this fall into the same realms as those claiming we’d have 2 moons when Mars was at its closest approach to Earth. Sure it’ll be bigger than it would be otherwise but the effect is usually beyond our ability to perceive and the photos just give a false impression of what a supermoon actually is. To be fair though the term supermoon isn’t a scientific term at all (it comes from astrology) so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised about the smoke and mirrors that surrounds it.
It’s hard to believe that Curiosity, the successor to the incredibly successful Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers, has been on the martian surface for a total of 2 years now. Not only did it prove many of the complicated engineering processes behind getting such a large craft onto Mars’ surface it’s also greatly improved our understanding of our celestial neighbour. Like its predecessors Curiosity has already outlived its original mission parameters, although not by the same margin, and barring any catastrophic failures it’s highly likely that it will continue to be productive long into the future. However it did recently come dangerously close to falling victim to one of Mars’ most insidious features: the sand traps.
Curiosity’s current mission is to get to Mount Sharp, a 5KM tall peak which NASA scientists hope will have varying layers of rock they’ll be able to study as they climb up it. This would give a better insight into the evolution of Mars’ environment over the years, showing us how it transitioned from a once wet planet into the barren desert that it is today. However between Curiosity and the base of Mount Sharp there’s a trench of wavy sand that’s been dubbed the “Hidden Valley” and up until recently NASA scientists were just going to drive across it. However upon attempting to do this Curiosity has found that the sand is far more slippery than it first anticipated and thus it has been turned back whilst NASA figures out what approach they’ll take.
This is a very similar situation to the one that was eventually the downfall of Spirit. A lot of the surface of Mars looks visually similar however often the makeup of the underlying surface varies drastically. In both Curiosity’s and Spirit’s cases the soil lacked cohesion making it extremely difficult for the rovers to get traction. For Spirit this meant that it was no longer able to get its solar panels into the required angle for the martian winter, meaning it couldn’t generate enough electricity to keep its circuits functioning. If the same fate had befallen Curiosity however it wouldn’t matter as much (well apart from the obvious) as it’s internal power supply doesn’t rely on solar energy.
In terms of the mission profile it’s likely that this will probably just be a delay more than anything else as whilst there aren’t many ways out of the valley that Curiosity is currently in there are other potential paths it can take to get to Mount Sharp. In actual fact the delay might not be all bad news for Curiosity either as the return journey from the slippery slopes of Hidden Valley actually revealed a potential rock for further investigation, dubbed the Bonanza King. We’ll have to wait and see if anything interesting can be derived from that, however.
I guess things like this just go to show that no matter how well you prepare, nor how good the equipment is that you bring with you, it’s still entirely possible for old problems to come back and bite you. Thankfully this time around we were prepared for such things and we haven’t ended up with another stationary science platform. Hopefully this won’t delay Curiosity’s mission for too long as it’s proven to be incredibly valuable thus far and the Mount Sharp mission could really give us clarity over how Mars became the desolate place that it is today.
The moon is a barren and desolate place. The face which every human on Earth has stared at for centuries was shaped long ago by the innumerable impacts that peppered its surface. This is in stark contrast to say the surface of planets (or even some other moons) whose surfaces have been shaped through volcanic or tectonic means. This lack of surface activity is what led us to believe that the Moon was dead, a solid ball of rock that solidified many billions of years ago. However recent studies have shown that the Moon might not be as dead as we first thought with its center being not unlike that of our own Earth.
Data from the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE or Kaguya as it’s known to JAXA), as well as information gleaned from other missions, was used to model the Moon’s interior at different levels. We’ve known the rough structure of the Moon’s interior for some time now, ever since the astronauts on the Apollo missions deployed seismometers, however we never had much insight into the viscosity of those layers or whether or not the core was molten. This research shows that the mantle actually has 2 sections, the upper layer with a high viscosity and a lower layer that’s low viscosity. This would then suggest that there’s a source of heat in the Moon’s core that’s causing the lower mantle to become more liquid, indicating that the Moon’s core is likely molten.
Since the Moon is much smaller than Earth the processes that keep our core molten aren’t likely to have as much of an effect which is why it was long thought to be dead. However it appears that tidal forces, the same things that responsible for warping and shaping the moons around other planets, is what is responsible for causing the heating in the Moon’s core. In all honesty I didn’t think Earth would have the mass required to exert a strong enough tidal force to do that, we’re not exactly sitting on a gas giant, however it appears that Earth has sufficient mass to accomplish this.
Whilst this won’t be fueling the next revolution in space exploration it does open up some interesting possibilities for future expeditions to our celestial sister. Having some kind of temperature gradient opens up the possibilities of using that heat for useful work on the Moon’s surface from things like power generation to good old fashioned heating. Of course the challenge of drilling a couple kilometers into the lunar surface in order to do this is an exercise I’ll have to leave up to the reader but it’s at least an option instead of a science fiction fantasy now.
One of the biggest limitations on spacecraft today is the fact that you have to carry your fuel with you. The problem is that fuel is heavy and the more fuel you want to take with you means more fuel needed to get it up there, compounding the issue. There are some novel engines that combat this problem like the Ion Thrusters which are extremely fuel efficient, able to achieve massive delta-v over long periods of time. They still require fuel to be brought with them however and their performance characteristics don’t lend them to being useful for anything but long duration robotic missions. So there’s been something of a quest to find an engine that has similar properties that could potentially be used for more timely adventures and the latest candidate in that arena is the Cannae Drive. Although many sites have been hailing this as an “impossible” kind of drive that’s a little misleading as it was essentially an unproven theory with an unknown mechanism of action. The Cannae Drive (the latest variant of what’s called an EmDrive) uses a magneton to produce microwaves inside a specially designed vessel that’s tapered out to be larger at one end. The theory goes that this will then produce a net thrust in the desired direction even though no detectable energy leaves the device. Upon hearing that I can see why many people would say that it’s impossible however the latest results from NASA would suggest that the idea may have some merit to it, at least enough to warrant further investigation.
Eagleworks, the informal name for the Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory at NASA, has test all sorts of exotic propulsion devices including the original EmDrive design. The Cannae Drive has a much flatter resonant cavity when compared to the EmDrive, slightly degrading some of the performance characteristics (although what benefits it gives I can’t seem to find out), and the design called for radial slots along the bottom side of the vessel in order to be able to produce thrust. To properly test this theory NASA also tested a “null” vessel that lacked the slots. However both vessels produced a thrust, something which throws a wrench into the proposed mechanism of action.
Essentially it means one of two following things are true: the thrust produced is anomaly of spurious effects and mathematical errors or the mechanism of action proposed is wrong and something completely different is responsible for it. The former explanation is starting to look less appealing as there’s been several positive results with the engine thus far. It’s entirely possible that the original theory behind the mechanism of operation was wrong and there are numerous tests that can be done in order to ascertain just what makes this thing tick. Eagleworks don’t seem to be satisfied with their current answer so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this engine in the not too distant future.
If this, or any of the other reactionless drives, come to fruition it will be a major boon for the space industry as there are numerous applications for propulsion that doesn’t require fuel to drive it. Things like geostationary satellites, which currently have a limited life thanks to the station keeping required to keep them there, could benefit greatly from this extending their usable lifetimes far beyond the current norm. It would also open the possibility of ever more ambitious exploration goals, allowing us to explore the solar system in ways that are just simply not possible today. Between then and now though there’s a lot of science to be done and we should be all glad that NASA is the one on the case.