Space

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Philae Wakes Up.

The Rosetta mission’s journey to comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko 67P spanned some 10 years, nearly all of that spent idling through space as it performed the numerous gravity assists required to get up the required speed. By comparison the mere 60 hours that the Philae Lander, the near cubic meter sized daughter craft of the parent Rosetta satellite, seemed almost insignificant by comparison but thankfully it was able to return some data before it went dead. There was some speculation that, maybe, once the comet got close enough to the sun the lander would have enough power to come back online and resume its activities. Chances were slim though as it had landed in a high walled crater that blocked much of the sun from hitting.

However, just under 12 hours ago, Philae made contact with Rosetta.

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To say that the chances of Philae waking up were slim was putting it lightly given the trials and tribulations it went through during its landing attempt. In the extremely weak gravity field of its parent comet the 100KG lander weighs a mere 1g meaning the slightest push could send it tumbling across the surface or, even worse, out into space. This wouldn’t have been an issue if Philae’s landing hooks had fired but they unfortunately failed meaning it had no way with which to hang onto the surface. Thankfully it seems that an outgassing event hasn’t blown our little lander away and, after the Rosetta craft turned on its receiver to listen for it, we’ve finally made contact with Philae.

Reestablishing contact with Philae is a boon to the Rosetta mission as the lander contains a wealth of data that we could not retrieve when it was last active, due to time constraints. After the initial burst of 300 that the ESA was able to retrieve during this first contact after it went dark there are still some 8000 packets left to collect. These will provide some great insight into what happened to the lander during the dark period and what it’s been up to since it finally woke up. Early indications are that Philae has actually been awake before it was just unable to make contact with the Rosetta probe for whatever reason. We’ll likely know a lot more as the ESA team gets more time to analyze the data.

This also doesn’t appear to simply be a spurious occurrence either as the telemetry data indicates that Philae is operating at a balmy -35°C and is generating some 24 watts of power off its solar panels. Considering that its panels were rated for 32 watts at 3AUs from the sun  (it is currently 1.4AUs as of writing) that’s not bad considering that it’s in something of a crater which would limit its sun exposure dramatically. This figure can only be expected to increase as time goes on meaning that Philae will likely be able to keep transmitting data and continue the experiments that it was unable to do previously. One such example is drilling into the surface of its parent comet, something which was attempted previously but didn’t prove successful.

Spacecraft coming back from the dead like this are a rare occurrence and it’s an absolute joy to hear that Philae has awoken from its 7 month slumber. It’s brief 60 hour mission will hopefully now be extended several times over, allowing us to conduct the full array of experiments and gather valuable data. What insights it will dredge up is anyone’s guess but suffice to say that Philae’s reawakening is a boon to both the ESA and the greater science community at large.

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LightSail-A Deploys, Paves Way for Future Missions.

Solar sails sound like something that’s strictly science fiction but they’ve had a surprising amount of real world success over the past 5 years. Back in 2010 Japan launched their IKAROS craft, an ambitious project that had its sights set on a fully solar sail powered mission to Venus which it successfully completed in December of the same year. Nanosail-D2 (D1 was lost when the Falcon rocket carrying it failed to reach orbit) followed shortly afterwards and, whilst it had some issues deploying from its parent satellite, eventually managed to deploy and stay in orbit for some time. The most recent mission, headed up by the Planetary Society who took over the Nanosail project from NASA,  called LightSail-A announced that they had successfully deployed their sail which bodes well for their future missions.

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Whilst this isn’t exactly new territory for solar sails as a technology it is a rather important validation of the technological platform that the Planetary Society wants to use going forward. LightSail-A was built on a three unit cubesat platform with one unit dedicated to the core electronics platform and the other two holding the solar sail. It’s essentially another version of the Nanosail-D type craft that NASA launched when they were in charge of the program although I’m sure there’s some fundamental differences under the hood. What’s really interesting about LightSail-A though is that it’s entirely funded by the Planetary Society through their member dues and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising the requisite $1.8 million to get their craft into orbit.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for this little craft however, something which seems to be par for the course with solar sail projects. Two days after launch LightSail-A fell out of contact with earth, rendering it unable to deploy its sail. All hopes were then pinned on LightSail-A rebooting itself which it did just over a week later. Just a few days after that however an issue with the battery system, which had failed to charge after the solar panels had deployed, knocked the craft out of communication again. 4 days ago however contact was reestablished and, just one short day afterwards LightSail-A confirmed that it had deployed its sails. Today the Planetary Society released the first image captured from LightSail-A (shown above), confirming that the sails had been deployed.

The amount of time that the craft has left up in orbit is anyone’s guess as the original mission duration was planned for two to ten days after the sail had been deployed. The altitude of LightSail-A’s orbit means that it can’t be used to test the propulsion capabilities as the atmospheric drag is far greater than any thrust that the sail can generate. The next week or so will give the Planetary Society enough time to shake down the rest of the systems, hopefully working out any further kinks before they attempt their next mission, currently planned for sometime next year.

It might not be the most revolutionary nor sexy of space missions however the fact that this happened on the back of support from the public is what makes LightSail-A’s accomplishments significant. Solar sails have the potential to revolutionize the way our spacecraft access deep space, enabling faster and more efficient missions to other celestial bodies within our solar system. We may be a decade or so away from seeing it being adapted in earnest but without missions like LightSail-A we’d be waiting for much, much longer.

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3D Printing Our Off-World Colony.

Human spaceflight is, to be blunt, an unnecessarily complicated affair. Us humans require a whole host of things to make sure we can survive the trip through the harsh conditions of space, much more than our robotic companions require. Of course whilst robotic missions may be far more efficient at performing the missions we set them out on that doesn’t further our desire to become a multi-planetary species and thus the quest to find better ways to preserve our fragile bodies in the harsh realms of space continues. One of the biggest issues we face when travelling to other worlds is how we’ll build our homes there as traditional means will simply not work anywhere else that we currently know of. This is when novel techniques, such as 3D printing come into play.

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Much of the construction we engage in today relies on numerous supporting industries in order to function. Transplanting these to other worlds is simply not feasible and taking prefabricated buildings along requires a bigger (or numerous smaller) launch vehicles in order to get the required payload into orbit. If we were able to build habitats in situ however then we could cut out the need for re-establishing the supporting infrastructure or bringing prefabricated buildings along with us, something which would go a long way to making an off-world colony sustainable. To that end NASA has started the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge with $2.25 million in prizes to jump start innovation in this area.

The first stage of the competition is for architects and design students to design habitats that maximise the benefits that 3D printing can provide. These will then likely be used to fuel further designs of habitats that could be constructed off-world. The second part of the competition, broken into 2 stages, is centered on the technology that will be used to create those kinds of structures. The first focuses on technology required to use materials available at site as a feed material for 3D printing, something which is currently only achieved with very specific feedstock. The second, and ultimately the most exciting, challenge is to actually build a device capable of using onsite materials (as well as recyclables) to create a habitable structure with a cool $1.1 million to those who satisfy the challenge. Doing that would be no easy feat of course but the technology created along the way will prove invaluable to future manned missions in our solar system.

We’re still likely many years away from having robots on the moon that can print us endless 3D habitats but the fact that NASA wants to spur innovation in this area means that they’re serious about pursuing a sustainable human presence offworld. There’s likely numerous engineering challenges that we’ll need to overcome, especially between different planets, but it’s far easier to adapt a current technology than it is to build one from scratch. I’m very keen to see the entries to this competition as they could very well end up visiting other planets to build us homes there.

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Ceres’ Perplexing Bright Spots.

Whilst the mainstream media would have you believe that the bright spots on Ceres were a surprise to everyone they’ve actually been something we’ve known about for quite some time. However in the past they seemed to come and go making consistent observations of them rather difficult. With the Dawn craft now in a stable orbit around Ceres we are now in the position to observe them much more closely, bringing us ever closer to understanding what the heck it is. There’s still a lot more for us to understand but the first round of preliminary observations have provided some very good insight into the bright spot’s composition and its likely origin.

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The first revelation to come out of Dawn’s observations was that the bright spot was in fact not a singular entity and is made up of several spots. There’s 2 large primary bright spots that are accompanied by a bunch of smaller ones which indicates that, as we make better observations, that those larger spots are most likely made up of multiple smaller spots as well. As the above ground map indicates there are actually a bunch of other bright spots dotted over Ceres’ landscape however none of them were close enough together to be observable before Dawn began making closer approaches. The origins of these spots remain something of a mystery however there are several prevailing theories about how they could have been created.

Ceres has been observed as having a very tenuous atmosphere which could only have arisen from outgassing or sublimation from its core. In early 2014 observations of Ceres detected some localized cryovolcanoes which are dumping some 3KG of water out into space every second supporting the theory that there’s some form of water hidden within Ceres. This supports the theory that these bright spots are most likely water ice (which would have the required reflectivity) but at the same time water in a vacuum tends to sublimate very quickly which begs the question of how long these bright spots have been around and how long they’ll last.

It’s quite possible that the ice in the crater was revealed by a recent impact and thus we’re just lucky that the bright spot is there for us to observe it. Considering that Ceres sits within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter this is a very real possibility although that does then raise the question of why we’re not seeing more bright spots than we currently are. This is what then fuels other, more exotic, theories about what’s at the base of that crater such as a large metallic deposit. However evidence to support those theories isn’t yet forthcoming however once Dawn starts making closer approaches there is potential for some to come to light.

Needless to say the next few months of observations will prove extremely valuable in determining the bright spots’ elusive nature. Whilst the reality is likely to be far more dull and boring than any of the exotic theories make it out to be it’s still an exciting prospect, one that will give us insight into how solar systems like ours form.

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MESSENGER’s Last Gift: Mercury’s Ancient Magnetic Field.

MESSENGER was a great example of how NASA’s reputation for solid engineering can extend the life of their spacecraft far beyond anyone’s expectations. Originally slated for a one year mission once it reached it’s destination (a 7 year long journey in itself) MESSENGER continued to operate around Mercury for another 3 years past its original mission date, providing all sorts of great data on the diminutive planet that hugs our sun. However after being in orbit for so long its fuel reserves ran empty leaving it unable to maintain its orbit. Then last week MESSENGER crash landed on Mercury’s surface putting an end to the 10 year long mission. However before that happened MESSENGER sent back some interesting data around Mercury’s past.

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As MESSENGER’s orbit deteriorated it creeped ever closer to the surface of Mercury allowing it to take measurements that it couldn’t do previously due to concerns about the spacecraft not being able to recover from such a close approach. During this time, when MESSENGER was orbiting at a mere 15KMs (just a hair above the max flight ceiling of a modern jetliner) it was able to use its magnetometer to detect the magnetic field emanating from the rocks on Mercury’s surface. These fields showed that the magnetic field that surrounds Mercury is incredibly ancient, dating back almost 4 billion years (right around the creation of our solar system). This is interesting for a variety of reasons but most of all because of how similar Mercury’s magnetic field is to ours.

Of all the planets in our solar system only Earth and Mars have a sustained magnetic field that comes from an internal dynamo of undulating molten metals. Whilst the gas giants also generate magnetic fields they come from a far more exotic form of matter (metallic hydrogen) and our other rocky planets, Venus and Mars, have cores that have long since solidified, killing any significant field that might have once been present. Mercury’s field is much weaker than Earth’s, on the order of only 1% or so, but it’s still enough to produce a magnetosphere that deflects the solar wind. Knowing how Mercury’s field evolved and changed over time will give us insights not only into our own magnetic field but of those planets in our solar system who have long since lost theirs.

There’s likely a bunch more revelations to come from the data that MESSENGER gathered over all those years it spent orbiting our tiny celestial sister but discoveries like this, ones that could only be made in the mission’s death throes, feel like they have a special kind of significance. Whilst it might not be the stuff that makes headlines around the world it’s the kind of incremental discovery that gives us insight into the inner workings of planets and their creation, something we will most definitely need to understand as we venture further into space.

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The EmDrive is Most Likely Not a Warp Device.

Science reporting and science have something of a strained relationship. Whilst most scientists are modest and humble about the results that they produce the journalists who report on it often take the opposite approach, something which I feel drives the disillusionment of the public when it comes to announcing scientific progress. This rift is most visible when it comes to research that challenges current scientific thinking something which, whilst needs to be done on a regular basis to strengthen the validity of our current thinking, also needs to be approached with the same trepidation as any other research. However from time to time things still slip through the cracks like the latest news that the EmDrive may, potentially, be creating warp bubbles.

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Initially the EmDrive, something which I blogged about late last year when the first results became public, was a curiosity that had an unknown mechanism of action necessitating further study. The recent results, the ones which are responsible for all the hubbub, were conducted within a vacuum chamber which nullified the criticism that the previous results were due to something like convection currents rather than another mechanism. That by itself is noteworthy, signalling that the EmDrive is something worth investigating further to see what’s causing the force, however things got a little crazy when they started shining lasers through it. They found that the time of flight of the light going through the EmDrive’s chamber was getting slowed down somehow which, potentially, could be caused by distortions in space time.

The thing to note here though is that the previous test was conducted in atmosphere, not in a vacuum like the previous test. This introduces another variable which, honestly, should have been controlled for as it’s entirely possible that that effect is caused by something as innocuous as atmospheric distortions. There’s even real potential for this to go the same way as the faster than light neutrinos with the astoundingly repeatable results being created completely out of nothing thanks to equipment that wasn’t calibrated properly. Whilst I’m all for challenging the fundamental principles of science routinely and vigorously we must remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and right now there’s not enough of that to support many of the conclusions that the wider press has been reaching.

What we mustn’t lose sight of here though is that the EmDrive, in its current form, points at a new mechanism of generating thrust that could potentially revolutionize our access to the deeper reaches of space. All the other spurious stuff around it is largely irrelevant as the core kernel of science that we discovered last year, that a resonant cavity pumped with microwaves can produce thrust in the absence of any reaction mass, seems to be solid. What’s required now is that we dive further into this and figure out just how the heck it’s generating that force because once we understand that we can further exploit it, potentially opening up the path to even better propulsion technology. If it turns out that it does create warp bubbles than all the better but until we get definitive proof on that speculating along that direction really doesn’t help us or the researchers behind it.

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Scientists Plan to Strap a Laser to the ISS to Shoot Down Space Junk.

Space debris is becoming more of an issue as time goes on with the number of objects doubling in the last 15 years. Part of that problem is inevitable as the stage based approach to rocketry, whilst being the most efficient way to transport mass to orbit, unfortunately leaves behind a considerable amount of mass. This, combined with the numerous defunct satellites and other bits of junk, means that our lower orbits are littered with objects hurtling through space with enough force to cause some rather significant damage to anything else we put up there. Solving this problem isn’t easy as just picking it up is far more complicated than it sounds. Thus researchers have long thought of ideas to tackle this issue and scientists working at the RIKEN institute may have come up with a workable solution for some of the most dangerous and hardest to remove debris out there.

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The idea comes off the back of the Japanese Experiment Module – Extreme Universe Space Observatory (JEM-EUSO) telescope which is slated to be launched and installed on the International Space Station sometime in 2017. The telescope is designed to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a giant detector for energetic particles which will leave a trail of light behind them as they decay in the Earth’s atmosphere. The design of the telescope, which consists of three large lenses that direct the light to some 137 photodetector modules, means it has an extremely wide field of view. Whilst this is by design for its primary mission it also lends itself well to detecting space debris over a large area, something which is advantageous to the ISS which needs to do everything it can to avoid them.

However that’s only half the solution; the other half is a freaking laser.

Scientists at the RIKEN institute have posited that using something like the CAN laser, which is a fibre based laser that was originally designed for use in particle accelerators, could then be used to zap space junk and send it back down to Earth. This kind of approach only works for debris that are centimeters in size however they’re among some of the most devastating pieces of junk due to the difficulty in detecting them. With the JEM-EUSO however these bits of debris could be readily identified and, if they’re within the reach of the laser, heated up so their orbit begins to decay.

The current plan is to develop a proof of concept device that uses a 1/10th scale version of the current JEM-EUSO telescope combined with a 100 fiber laser. Whilst they haven’t provided any specifications beyond that going off their full scale design (10,000 fibers) the concept should be able to deorbit debris up to a kilometer away. The full scale version on the other hand would be able to zap space junk at a range of up to 100km, an incredible feat that would dramatically help in cleaning up Earth’s orbit. The final stage would be to develop a standalone satellite that could be put into a 800km polar orbit, one of the most cluttered orbits above Earth.

Our approach to tackling space debris is fast becoming a multi-faceted approach, one that will require many different methods to tackle the various types of junk that we have circling our Earth. Things like this are the kind of approach we’ll need going forward as one launch will be able to eliminate several times its own mass in debris before its useful life is over. It’s far from an unsolvable problem however whatever solutions we develop will need to be put to use soon lest our low orbits become a place that no man can ever venture through again.

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United Launch Alliance Announces Vulcan.

The past couple decades have seen the rise of a burgeoning private space industry, one that’s become dominated by companies founded by entrepreneurs who made their original fortunes in industries that couldn’t have been more different. What they’ve accomplished in that timeframe has been staggering making the long standing giants of this industry look archaic by comparison. However their track records for delivering in fields that these new companies can’t yet service is what has kept them going but the time is fast approaching when even their golden tickets will be up for auction. At least one company doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels however with United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, announcing their cut price launch system called Vulcan.

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As the banner’s imagery alludes to ULA’s Vulcan is an all-American vehicle, ditching the reliance on Russian built engines that have been the mainstay of their rockets for quite a while now. That’s caused some consternation as of late as the USA tries to wean itself off its reliance for Russia to provide access to space as well as the well publicized failures of a few choice engines. It’s hardly a surprising move given that many other US based companies are looking to bring their manufacturing back on-shore, both for quality control reasons as well as for publicity purposes. Regardless of where its made though what will really define this rocket is how it performs and how much it will cost.

ULA has said that the Vulcan will follow in the footsteps of the Delta-IV, offering multiple configurations from medium-lift all the way up to heavy-lift. The way this will be achieved will be through the use of different sized payload fairings as well as additional strap on solid rocket boosters, allowing the rocket to be configured to match the payload its delivering into orbit. ULA is being rather coy about the range of payloads that Vulcan will be able to service however if it’s anything like the system it will ultimately be replacing it will be a direct competitor to the future Falcon Heavy. At this point I’d usually make a quip about the SpaceX equivalent being vastly cheaper however ULA is aiming for a street price of $100 million per launch which isn’t too far off SpaceX’s projected price for their craft.

This rather extraordinary drop in price (down from some $350 million for a comparable launch on the Delta-IV) comes on the back of making the Vulcan reusable, eliminating a lot of the costs of rebuilding a rocket from scratch for every launch. However unlike the fully reusable system that SpaceX and others are pursuing (which, unfortunately, suffered another failure today) ULA is instead taking a piecemeal approach to reusability with the first part being a mid-air recovery of the engine section using a helicopter. Considering that the engines are among the most expensive components on rockets recovering them only makes sense and, potentially, has a higher chance of succeeding than other approaches currently do.

It’s good to see that the private space industry has been able to put some pressure on the long standing giants, forcing them to innovate or be pushed out of space completely. Whilst Vulcan might still be quite a few years away from seeing its first launch it shows that ULA recognise the position they’re in and are willing to compete their way out of it. Hopefully we’ll see some more details on the actual specifications of this craft sometime soon as depending on the different configurations (and their potential costs) this could even prompt SpaceX to rethink their approach. The result of an innovation war between those two giants can only mean great things for the space industry as a whole and, by extension, us as potential space faring beings.

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Mars Hides Glaciers in Plain Sight.

We’ve known for a long time now that Mars once contained vast reservoirs of water and that even in its apparently dry state there was indications of water still hiding in various places. The search for water on Mars is a twofold with the two main objectives being finding environments suitable to life and secondly for potential use by future manned missions. Whilst we’ve succeed in confirming that yes, water once covered Mars and it still exists there today, we’re still finding out just how extensive the reservoirs are. As it turns out Mars may be flush with more water than we first expected and it’s been right under our noses this entire time.

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The surface of Mars is a barren wasteland, covered in the same monotonous coloring that gives it that signature red tinge. The poles are the exception to this, harboring large water ice caps that get blanketed with a layer of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) in the winter. The reason for this is that due to the low pressure of Mars’ atmosphere exposed water anywhere else on the planet simply subliminates, turning straight from ice to water vapor before being swept away by Mars’ turbulent winds. However new research from the University of Copenhagen has revealed that water ice has managed to survive in other places around Mars and has done so in great quantities.

As it turns out many of the geological features we’ve observed on Mars that we’ve assumed to simply be mountains or hills are in fact dust covered glaciers which pepper the martian surface near the poles. This thick layer of dust has protected them from Mars’ atmosphere, preventing the ice from sublimation away. This dust also makes them appear like any other geological feature that you’d find on Mars’ surface instead of the towering walls of ice that we’re used to seeing here on Earth. The researchers were able to determine that these were water ice glaciers by using radar measurements from the numerous spacecraft we have orbiting the red planet and how they’re flowing under their protective dust blankets.

The amount of ice that these glaciers contain is quite staggering, enough that if it was spread out over the surface of Mars it would blanket it in a layer 1.1m thick. Such giant reservoirs provide huge opportunities for both exploration and scientific purposes and potentially paves a way for a sustainable human settlement. Whilst liquid water is always the most viable place to look for life we’ve found dozens of examples of microbial life living in some pretty harsh conditions and these glaciers might be a great place to start looking. That and water is one of the main components in several types of rocket fuel, something we’ll need if we want to do multiple return missions to Mars.

It’s incredible to note that our view of Mars has changed so drastically over the past couple decades, going from a barren wasteland that could never have housed life to a viable candidate, flush with water reserves everywhere. This latest discovery just goes to show that we can’t simply rely on visual data alone as even a well studied planet like Mars can still hide things from us and can do it in plain sight. The next step is to dig beneath Mars’ thick dust blanket to peer into these glaciers and, potentially, find something wriggling down there.

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Roscosmos Commits to New ISS, NASA Doesn’t.

It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.

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Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.

Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.

There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.

I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.