One of the most important parts of any spacecraft is their attitude control system. This is the part which is responsible for keeping the craft pointed in the right direction something which is of the ultimate importance when you’re trying to do things like fine tuning manoeuvres or trying to monitor a specific part of the sky for an extended period of time. The most common of these kinds of systems are reaction control systems which typically use a hypergolic fuel (ignites on mixure, no external ignition source required) however they’re limited by the amount of fuel you can bring with you. Whilst there are many alternatives reaction wheels are the best in terms of weight, size and precision and they can make for cool systems like these:
Cubli isn’t the first reaction wheel controlled robot I’ve seen but it is most certainly the most elegant and precise. It’s also probably the best demonstration I’ve seen of how reaction wheels work, showing aptly how rotational momentum can be translated into an angular force on the objects that the reaction wheel is coupled to. Whilst most space craft won’t ever use the jumping and walking functions (that’s what station keeping boosters are for) the rest of the demonstrated capabilities are identical to what many modern space craft use.
As for uses for things like this on earth? Well there aren’t as many as there are out in space, mostly thanks to us having other means by which to stabilize and rotate things, but they do make for a cool technological demonstration.
If you wander over to the Space section of this blog you won’t have to look far to figure out which company I have a huge man crush on. Whilst SpaceX might be the toast of the private space flight industry thanks to their incredibly impressive achievements and lofty goals they’re far from the only player in the game and they’re really only currently focused on getting cargo and people into orbit, keeping them there is still someone else’s job. This isn’t to say that no one is working on solving that particular problem however and Bigelow Aerospace, a company I’ve mentioned in passing a couple times, is one such company.
Bigelow Aerospace is the brain child of Robert Bigelow funded primarily from the fortune he made from his ownership stake in the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. Unlike most private space companies which are primarily focusing on the launch side of the equation Bigelow is instead focusing solely on the staying up there part, developing technology for a new kind of space station that promises to deliver much larger usable volumes at a fraction of the cost of traditional space station modules. They’re in fact so far along the development path that they already have 2 of their modules Genesis I and Genesis II in orbit right now and they’ve been there for the better part of 6 and 5 years respectively.
Their modules are based off of a pretty novel idea that NASA was developing back in the early 1990s. Dubbed TransHab the idea was to be able to build modules that were of a certain size when launched but could then be inflated once in orbit to provide much more room. Additionally the inflatable design means that it’s much more resistant to micrometeorite impacts as the outer surface will flex, reducing risks to the crew and lowering ongoing maintenance costs. Unfortunately due to the budget overruns of the International Space Station project the TransHab was ultimately cancelled but Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA and set about creating his own versions of them.
The goal for Bigelow was to start up his own private space stations in orbit, essentially extending his hotel chain to outer space. Whilst they’ve had functional verification of their systems for a long time now their biggest issue was a lack of transportation methods in order to get people up there. Seats on Soyuz craft are now going for upwards of $50 million dollars and Bigelow’s plans just aren’t feasible at that price point. Indeed the current lack of usable alternatives prompted Bigelow to slash its staffing by over half at the end of 2011 although they have begun rehiring now in preparation for the availability of such services coming online in 2016.
What is pretty incredible though was the recent news that Bigelow has won a contract with NASA to provide an inflatable module for the International Space Station. Whilst there’s scant details about what the module will actually be (that’s apparently scheduled for a press conference today) it’s a safe bet that it’d be something like their planned BA-330 although it’s entirely possible that they might go for gold and debut their giant BA-2100 (pictured above) which would almost triple the current liveable volume of the ISS. It may seem counter-intuitive for NASA to buy their own technology back off a private manufacturer but Bigelow has invested some $180 million into getting the project this far, a sum that I’m sure no one at NASA wanted to spend when they already have so much invested in rigid modules.
The amount of innovation we’re seeing in the private space industry is simply staggering as we’re fast approaching the point where the only thing that stands between you and your own private space station is the capital required. Sure that’s still no small barrier but the fact that we’re commoditizing space travel means that it’ll soon be something that will be within reach for all of us, much like the commercialization of air flight last century. NASA’s contract with Bigelow is proof that the nascent space company is at the point where it’s technology is ready for prime time and I can’t wait to see one of their modules up in space.
One of the major criticisms I often see leveled at the fledgling private space industry is that it focuses far too heavily on touristy sub-orbital junkets. When the total time spent in space is approximately 5 minutes I can see why critics are quick to jump to this conclusion as you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of experiments you could do in such a short time frame. Still as I’ve written previously there are many experiments that have been ignored for the longest time simply because they fall outside the normal parameters regular space missions and are impossible to reach with other equipment. Sub-orbital flights provide access to a region of space that’s been largely ignored due to this and with many private companies making headway into this field scientists are starting to line up for the chance to study the boundary of space.
Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has recently become extremely interested in the opportunity to conduct experiments in sub-orbital space. They’re quite a big player when it comes to space having been involved in many recent major discoveries so it comes as little surprise that they’d be amongst the first to line up for tickets into sub-orbital space. What caught me by surprise however was just how serious they are about it booking tickets not only with the current leader in sub-orbital flights but also securing spots on the as of yet unproven XCOR Lynx:
The California-based spaceflight company XCOR Aerospace has inked a deal to take scientists and their experiments on six flights to suborbital space on a two-seat space plane.
The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit research organization, has purchased six trips aboard XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx vehicle, XCOR officials announced Thursday (Feb. 24). The Institute announced today (Feb. 28) that it also signed a deal with rival private spaceship company Virgin Galactic for rides aboard that firm’s SpaceShipTwo space plane.
These contracts mark a first for the resusable suborbital launch vehicle industry, officials said.
This shows that sub-orbital space is definitely not just a playground for rich tourists and presents many research opportunities for scientists to exploit. The initial payloads look pretty interesting too focusing on atmospheric imaging, biomedical modelling and studying planetary regolith in micro gravity. As the sub-orbital industry matures I’m sure there will be a bevy of experiments that will start to emerge, especially considering the relatively cheap access price that’s well within the bounds of many scientific grants.
Sub-orbital flights are the stepping stone to creating a fully fledged private space industry and the interest that’s been generated by both future tourists and scientists shows there’s demand for such services. Virgin Galactic has gone on record in the past stating that should SpaceShipTwo prove to be successful the next incarnation will be a fully orbital ship. Couple that with companies like Bigelow Aerospace and we’ve already got the beginnings of a future where space travel is part of everyday life, just like air travel has become. Sure we’re still decades away from realizing anything like that but such a dream just keeps becoming more and more realistic everyday and I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.