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.
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.
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.
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 many know my experience with 3D printing has come with mixed results, as the kit I bought with 3 friends required more calibration than I was willing to do and my friend’s Solidoodle proved to be a reliable way to create the objects I needed. I’m still highly interested in the area (I was going to post a review of Microsoft’s 3D Builder but just never found the time to hook it all up) and I strongly believe that the commoditization of manufacturing at the small scale will prove to be revolutionary. One area of particular interest was the idea of a food printer, something that could potentially make a meal out of some base nutritional components.
As it turns out this might be closer than I first imagined (skip to 1 minute in for the good stuff):
NASA stated investigating the idea of 3D printing food a little while ago, investing a small amount of money into research to create a device capable of creating edible foodstuffs on the International Space Station. Primarily this was to fuel a longer term goal to provide food for an interplanetary trip to Mars as its believed that 3D printed food could dramatically reduce waste and improve efficiency with transported materials. Whilst this current demonstration appears to be limited to producing pizza (something which seems a perfect fit for a first run) NASA’s vision is for something far more general and it looks like they’re well on their way to achieving that.
It’s a big step considering that we’ve had printers capable of producing chocolate models for some time, but the leap to other food has proved somewhat elusive. It will likely be quite some time before it gets much more general than your run of the mill pizza however although some of the designs making the rounds are really quite impressive. Time will tell if they’ll ever become mass market devices but I can definitely see themselves finding a home in space stations and high end restaurants looking to create truly unique dishes.
It should come as no surprise that my favourite movie genre is science fiction. Even though I was born long after the original Star Wars trilogy had finished watching it with my parents is still one of the fondest memories I have and that has long since bloomed into a passion for the genre. Of course this also feeds into my love of sciences as whilst I also enjoy fantasy, in all its forms, nothing quite compares to plausible futures that are based on real science. Whilst I understand that scientific accuracy will often take a back seat when the narrative requires it I can’t help but feel compelled to point out some of the more obvious flaws, especially when it’s such a big movie like Gravity.
Now before I launch into this let me just be clear: I absolutely enjoyed Gravity. Whilst I was sceptical about George Clooney and Sandra Bullock being able to bring life to the roles they were given it didn’t take me long to warm to their characters. I was also very surprised by how much tension I felt for multiple different scenes, something which I don’t typically feel, at least not to that extent. All this, combined with the beautiful cinematography culminates in a movie that’s thoroughly enjoyable even if you take the hard line with science like I do. With all that being said though there are some points which bear mentioning and should have you not seen the movie I’ll advise you to skip reading on.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY
The first thing that I, and several others, have taken issue with is the notion that from the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope you’d be able see both the International Space Station as well as the Chinese Tiangong station (which is way more developed than current plans indicate, but that’s another story). Even if all of them shared identical orbits, which they don’t, the Hubble is in an orbit that’s some 200KM above the ISS and Tiangong making any naked eye visual impossible. Following on from this the idea that you’d be able to then travel between them becomes somewhat difficult as the energy required to do the plane change manoeuvres would be far above the capabilities of Manned Manoeuvring Unit. Indeed the backup plan NASA had for a shuttle that had suffered a catastrophic failure event such as the one in Gravity was to send another shuttle up there to rescue them, dubbed STS-400, which was the reason why we saw 2 fully fuelled shuttles on their respective launch pads the last time we serviced the Hubble.
I’m sort of able to forgive that for the sake of story however one moment that I won’t was when Bullock is holding onto Clooney’s tether and he says he has to let go or they’ll both be doomed. You see at that particular point there’s no more forces acting on them as once they got tangled up and stopped moving all their momentum had been transferred to the ISS, rendering them at equilibrium. If Bullock had simply tugged on the tether slightly Clooney would have then started drifting lazily towards the ISS and Bullock could have pulled herself back along the parachute cords. I would’ve let that slide if it was a minor side point but it’s one of the main turning points of the movie and unfortunately it just has no basis in reality whatsoever.
One thing I was also going to pan Gravity for was the use of fire extinguishers as thrusters since I figured the amount of delta-v available in them wouldn’t have been enough to provide any meaningful thrust. As it turns out, depending on what kind of extinguisher you have, there could be as much as 100m/s in them, a heck of a lot of thrust by any means. Whilst you’d be far more likely to send yourself into an unrecoverable spin if you were using them in the way shown in Gravity it does lend some credence to the idea of using it to correct your trajectory in order to intercept something else.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
There were also numerous other minor details but compared to the previous few I mentioned I don’t think they’re worth digging into. Whilst there really were some cringe inducing moments from a science perspective it is a highly enjoyable film, even if you’re not into the whole space scene. It’s also worth it to see it in 3D, something I don’t say often, as the producers have taken care to use 3D as a tool rather than slapping it on in order to increase the ticket price. It might not be super hard sci-fi but then again not many films are and ones of Gravity’s calibre are even rarer.
There was a long running joke that the International Space Station existed only as a place for the shuttle to go. Whilst that joke ignores the fact that the ISS wasn’t just an American creation it was true that the Shuttle really only had a single destination for the last decade or so of its life. Still it was pretty damn good at its job, both in terms of delivering payloads and its ability to ferry large crews and its retirement left a large hole in launch capabilities that is still yet to be filled. There have been many alternatives popping up however and the second fully privately funded one, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, made its launch debut last week.
In terms of capabilities the Cygnus is very similar to the Russian Progress craft with the initial versions able to deliver a payload of 2,000kg to the ISS. This is scheduled to be bumped up to 2,700kg after the first 3 vehicles as the craft and its associated launcher will be upgraded, giving it more significantly more interior volume as well. Much like all the other ISS cargo craft it does not have an automated docking capability and needs to be captured by CANADARM2 before being guided to one of the station’s ports. Additionally the Cygnus does not have any capability to reboost the ISS whilst it is docked, something which seems to be uniquely confined to the ATV (although the Progress can do it if required), and does not have any down range capability meaning it burns up on re-entry.
The first Cygnus craft launched late last week after a technical glitch caused a one day delay whilst a fix was developed. The launch itself was trouble free and it spent the weekend catching up to the ISS for a scheduled rendezvous today. Unfortunately whilst the Cygnus was attempting to establish a direct data link with the ISS another glitch was encountered forcing it to abort the current docking attempt. This will delay any further attempts for another couple days due to the orbital mechanics involved but this will give Orbital Sciences enough time to create and test a fix so that the next attempt should be successful.
Just like SpaceX before it Orbital Sciences has a pretty aggressive schedule for successive flights with the next flight lined up for December this year and 3 to follow in 2014. Considering their pedigree with multiple launch systems under their belt this is somewhat expected but it’s still quite amazing to see just how quickly these private companies can move when compared to previous governmental based efforts. It will be interesting to see if they ever adapt the Cygnus to be a human rated craft as whilst they’ve never launched people before they’ve got much of the expertise needed to do so.
It’s great to see that NASA’s COTS program is doing so well, producing results that many believed would be impossible. Whilst they still haven’t bridged the launch capability gap that the Shuttle has left behind they’ve already demonstrated one major part of it and I know it won’t be long before the crewed capability is restored. I’m hopeful that this will enable NASA to continue focusing on the real envelope pushing ideas to further our capabilities in space, leaving the more rudimentary aspects of it to the private market. The future of private space travel is looking brighter by the day and I’m glad Orbital Sciences, with their incredible pedigree of delivering on space projects, has come along for the ride.
We all know of the moisture contained within air, commonly referred to as humidity. Where I am it’s typically on the low side which has its advantages (evaporative cooling works a treat here) although it does tend to make any winter cold feel like it’s a frozen knife cutting through your very being. High humidity on the other hand gives rise to some potential applications that you might not have considered before like being able to extract drinkable water directly from the air that surrounds you:
What’s interesting about this particular idea is that it’s actually been around for quite some time in the form of consumer level devices. I remembered reading about them being available in Japan almost a decade ago and whilst the scale of the billboard vastly surpasses those little water coolers the technology that drives them is essentially the same.
Indeed the technology is so mature that NASA makes use of a very similar system to extract water from the atmosphere contained within the International Space Station which was installed during STS-126. Theirs also has the awesome (although some may say disgusting) ability to process urine back into potable water which allowed the ISS to expand its total crew from 3 to 6. Due to the shuttle’s retirement though such crew levels haven’t been sustained for a while although that could change in the near future.
Isn’t it fascinating to see how far and wide technology like this spreads?
Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) has been quite the little workhorse for the International Space Station, delivering some of the most valuable payloads to the floating space lab to date. I covered its maiden voyage all those years ago praising the craft’s capability to deliver standard payload racks in the absence of the Space Shuttle. Since then it’s gone on to do exactly that with the next 2 flights of the HTV delivering important cargo like Gradient Heating Furnace (used to create large, high quality crystals in microgravity) and the Aquatic Habitat which has allowed astronauts to study how fish live and breed over multiple generations in space. This weekend past saw the HTV launch for the 4th time from Yoshinobu Launch Complex at Tanegashima for a planed 35 day mission to the ISS.
I hadn’t covered any of the subsequent launches of the HTV, mostly because I didn’t find anything particularly interesting to write about them at the time, but looking over them I’m starting to regret my decision. In the 4 years since the HTV’s first launch every iteration of the craft has seen numerous improvements from routine things like improving the communications and avionics packages right through to improving the craft itself to be more lightweight. More interesting still is that JAXA has big plans for future iterations of the HTV, adding in the capability to return cargo to Earth (something that only the Soyuz and SpaceX Dragon are currrently capable of) by 2018 and, impressively, a crewed version that would be very similar to the Soyuz in terms of payload. The more ways we have of getting into space the better and I can’t think of a better craft to use as a base than the HTV for shipping humans up there.
However the HTV’s future isn’t what the space community is all abuzz about with this particular launch, it’s about the curious payload of a little robot called Kirobo. It’s a 34cm tall humanoid robot that’s been designed to communicate with its fellow human astronauts as well as people back on the ground. It’s equipped with voice and face recognition and can recognize emotions of the person its speaking to. It’s essentially designed to further investigate human-robot interactions, something that could prove to be pivotal in long haul flights to our nearest celestial neighbors. The ISS is no stranger to robot visitors either as they’ve been home to Robonaut 2 since early 2011 however it was more geared towards being a telepresence robot that could assist the crew with EVAs that required dexterous movement.
Alongside that plucky little robot companion will be 5.4 tonnes of other cargo for the ISS including support equipment for Kirobo, some cryogenic equipment and spare parts for the ISS itself. Interestingly there will also be 4 CubeSats brought along with it, two of which are ArduSats which are based off the Arduino development boards. Pico Dragon is a Vietnamese creation which will collect space and environment data as well as being a test bed for future satellite communication systems. TechEdSat, which as far as I can tell has no association with the Microsft TechEd brand, is designed to evaluate Space Plug-and-Play Avionics for the San Jose State University. They’re interesting because these usually tag along on other commercial flights and are deployed prior to the main payload although this isn’t the first time the ISS has launched CubeSats for others.
Organisations like JAXA give me a lot of hope for humanity’s space faring future as not only have they delivered a service routinely over the past 4 years they’ve pushed the envelope of their capability each time. The news that we could be seeing crewed vehicles from them within 10 years is incredibly exciting and the HTV will be a welcome addition to the growing family of launch services. They might not be as sexy as SpaceX but they’re doing a service that no one else can do and that’s something that we’ve got to appreciate.
The Proton series of rockets are one of the longest running in the history of spaceflight. They made their debut back in 1965 when the first of them was used to launch the Proton series of scientific satellites which were super high energy cosmic particle detectors. Since then they’ve become the mainstay of the Russian space program being used for pretty much everything from communication satellites to launching the Soyuz and Progress crafts that service the International Space Station. In that time they’ve seen some 384 launches total making it one of the most successful launch platforms to date. However that number also includes 44 full and partial failures, including a few high profile ones that I blogged about a couple years back.
Unfortunately it appears that history has repeated itself today with another Proton crashing in a rather spectacular fashion:
To put this in perspective there’s been about 37 total launches of the Proton rocket since 2010 with 5 of them being either partial or full failures. This isn’t out of line with the current failure rate of the program which hovers around 11% but 4 of those have happened in the last 2 years which is cause for concern. The primary problem seems to be related to the upper stage as 3 of the recent 4 have been due to that failing which can be attributed to it being a revised component that only came into service recently. This particular crash however was not an upper stage failure as it happened long before that component could come online, indicating the problem is with the first stage.
The reasoning behind why this crash ended so spectacularly is pretty interesting as it highlights some of the design differences between the American and Russian designs. Most American launchers have a launch termination system built into them for situations like this, allowing the ground crew to self destruct the rocket mid air should anything like this happen. Russian rockets don’t have such systems and prefer to simply shut down the engines when failures like this happen. However for the safety of the ground crew the engines won’t shut off prior to 42 seconds after launch which is why you see this particular rocket continuously firing right up until it tears itself apart.
Additionally the Russian rockets use a rocket fuel mixture that consists of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine and Nitrogen Tetroxide. When these two compounds mix together they react in a highly energetic hypergolic reaction, meaning they burn without requiring any ignition source. This is where the giant orange fireball comes from as the aerodynamic stresses on the craft ruptured the fuel and oxidizer tanks, causing them to come into contact and ignite. Other rocket designs usually use liquid oxygen and kerosene which don’t automatically ignite and thus wouldn’t typically produce a fireball like that but the launch termination systems usually ensure that all the remaining fuel is consumed anyway.
Needless to say this doesn’t reflect well on Russia’s launch capabilities but it should be taken in perspective. Whilst the recent failure rate is a cause for concern it has to be noted that the R-7, the rocket that launches both the Progress and Soyuz craft to the ISS, has experienced 0 failures in the same time frame with a very comparable number of launches. It’s quite likely that the failure isn’t part of a larger systemic issue since we’ve had multiple successful launches recently and I’m sure we’ll know the cause sooner rather than later. Hopefully Russia can get the issue resolved before too long and avoid such dramatic incidents in the future.
It was just on a year ago today when China made history by becoming one of the few space faring nations to have a manned presence in space. Sure it wasn’t particularly long with the taikonauts staying on board for just over a week but it still demonstrated that they were quite capable of doing everything that other nations have. That’s made all the more incredible by the fact that they have essentially built this program from scratch in just over 20 years at a fraction of the cost. Ever since then I’ve been waiting to hear about their next (and final) mission to Tiangong-1 as that would demonstrate their ability to repeat what they’ve done.
Today they’ve done just that.
Shenzhou-10 launched early this morning carrying with it 1 returning taikonaut (Nie Haisheng , Shenzhou-6) and 2 first comers including China’s second female taikonaut. The mission profile is much like the Shenzhou-9 with the crew spending 15 days in orbit with the majority of that being aboard Tiangong-1. Primarily they’ll be engaging in technological and scientific experiments but they’re also doing some outreach programs with Wang Yaping conducting some lectures live via television broadcast. Once their mission has been completed and the taikonauts returned to earth Tiangong-1 will be de-orbited in preparation for its upcoming replacement Tiangong-2.
I’ve said it several times before but it bears repeating, China is doing some really impressive work here and they’re doing it at an incredible pace when compared to previous endeavours to do the same. Sure, there’s a little bit of standing on the shoulders of giants here (thanks to their initial technology deal with Russia) but being able to launch a space station, perform unmanned missions and then 2 manned missions to it all within the space of 3 years is incredibly impressive. Tiangong-2, scheduled for launch for later this year, expands on the capabilities they developed further and should that prove successful that will pave the way for their first modular space station in the form of Tiangong-3.
Whilst I’m never going to be against more space stations the fact that the Tiangong series of craft exist can be directly traced back to the USA’s inability to work with China on anything space related. That may have made sense 3 decades ago but China has demonstrated pretty clearly that they’d have a lot to offer a joint space mission like the International Space Station. I’d even hazard a guess that the Tiangong/Shenzhou modules would be compatible with much of the ISS given their Russian technology roots or would likely only require minor modifications. Who knows, come 2020 when Tiangong-3 starts getting built we might see some collaboration from other nations but I don’t like our chances if the US gets involved again.
Despite that I’m all for the progress made by China as the more options we have for getting to and staying in space the better. The future of missions like this is looking to be increasingly private however, with companies and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences doing missions at a cost that even China says they can’t match. That’s a good thing however as it will allow them to focus on pushing the boundaries even further, taking on projects that will be truly awe inspiring.