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.
It’s strange, looking back over all my space posts of the past 3 years I couldn’t find any that were dedicated to the European Space Agency’s cargo craft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle. Sure I mentioned it in passing back when JAXA sent its first HTV to the International Space Station but even its second flight, named Johannes Kepler, obviously wasn’t inspiring enough for me to take notice. The only good reason I can come up with is the maiden voyage happened well before I got into blogging, but that doesn’t excuse me ignoring the significance of the ATV.
The ESA’s ATV is the only craft that the ESA has that participates in the ISS program. It’s a derivative of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that the Shuttle used to carry up to the ISS and is meant to work alongside the Russian Progress craft that have been resupplying the ISS for years. Compared the Progress its something of a monster being able to deliver almost 4 times the payload although that’s offset significantly by the fact that it’s current launch rate is about once per year. The majority of the payload is taken up by reboost and attitude control propellant as the ATV is capable of reboosting the ISS, something which no other craft is currently capable of doing (the retired Shuttle was the primary reboost craft prior to this). The rest of the payload consists of crew and station consumables, roughly equivalent to the amount that a Progress craft would deliver.
Today sees the ESA’s 3rd ATV docking with the International Space Station:
Whilst it’s not pushing any boundaries or developing new capabilities the successful docking of the Edoardo Amaldi shows that the ESA can make the yearly launches of the ATV without incident. That’s quite an achievement in itself and means that the 2 currently planned ATV launches should go off without a hitch. With the upcoming flights from companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the ISS you might be wondering why we’d bother having a craft like the ATV, especially when something like the Dragon has similar capabilities whilst also being reusable. The answer, from my perspective is two fold.
For starters neither of the upcoming private craft have the ability to reboost the ISS. Now doing this is non-trivial so its unlikely that either craft will gain that ability in the near term and as far as I can tell there are no other craft, current or planned, that have that ability. That surprises me as the second argument for the ATV’s existence, redundancy in capabilities, doesn’t exist with ISS reboosting. It’s possible that the upcoming Space Launch System with the Orion capsule might be able to do this but I can’t find anything that states that.
The second reason, as I alluded to before, is that when it comes to maintaining a human presence in space it doesn’t hurt to have redundancy for different capabilities. Whilst you can argue that there will be much better ways of doing things in the future it never hurts to have a backup that you can rely on. The ATV, with its rock solid yearly launch schedule, makes for a good fall back for other re-supply missions should they encounter any issues. Now all that’s required is finding another means by which to reboost the ISS and then we’ll have full redundancy across most of our manned space program activities.
4 days ago the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the first flight ready version of their HII Transfer Vehicle (HTV) line. Whilst on the surface that might not sound like much it marks a significant step forward in Japan’s space capability, as up until now their involvement with the Internation Space Station only involved the Kibo laboratory, all of which was hoisted up by their American counter-parts. It’s quite an interesting craft due to the omission of certain things and the reason it was built. Before I get into that however here’s a bit of eye candy showing it’s rendezous with the International Space Station:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=115pSsW9aXU
Apart from the amazing view of earth that this video shows it also demonstrates one of the oddities of the craft. Now the HTV isn’t the first of this kind of spacecraft to visit the ISS. The most frequent visitor is the Russian Progress craft, which has been responsible for delivering the majority of supplies to the space station. It’s basically a Soyuz craft minus all the gear to support a crew replaced with cargo storage, as it was impractical for the Soyuz craft to be used for both crew and cargo (it is quite small after all). The other is the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) which made its madon voyage to the ISS in March last year. What separates these from the HTV is that they both have an automated docking capability allowing them to hook up to the space station with no involvement from the ISS crew. That’s why you see the CANADARM2 stretching out to grab it. You’re probably wondering then, why the heck do we need another cargo ship to supply the ISS and beyond?
The HTV is something of a special purpose craft. Whilst its payload capacity is less than that of the ATV it does sport a much larger docking portal. That by itself doesn’t sound like much but the ATV can’t carry the Interational Standard Payload Racks because of this limitation. The only other way of getting these things inside the ISS is through Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules which fly with the space shuttle, something which is scheduled to stop happening in the near future. In essence the craft is a cheaper alternative to getting standard cargo payloads up to the station once the shuttle is retired, which is a good niche for JAXA to fill.
It might not be the most sexy or exciting craft around but the more countries that develop a capability like this means a lot to humanity at large. We’re starting to see a critical mass developing in both the public and private sector space industries and for a space nut like myself it provides many an hour of slack jawed reading and gazing. Japan’s fresh view on how to get cargo into space is an idea that not many have considered in the past and I hope they continue their involvement past this endeavour.
Big thumbs up to you guys 🙂