Russia’s space program has a reputation for sticking to ideas once they’ve got them right. Their Soyuz (pronounced sah-yooz) craft are a testament to this, having undergone 4 iterations since their initial inception but still sharing many of the base characteristics that were developed decades ago. The Soyuz family are also the longest serving series of spacecraft in history and with it only having 2 fatal accidents in that time they are well regarded as the safest spacecraft around. It’s no wonder then that 2 of the Soyuz capsules remain permanently docked to the International Space Station to serve as escape pods in the even of a catastrophe, a testament to the confidence the space industry has with them.
Recent news however has brought other parts of the Russia space program into question, namely their Proton launch stack. Last week saw a Proton launched communications satellite ending up in the wrong orbit when the upper orbital insertion model failed to guide it to the proper geostationary orbit. Then just this week saw another Proton launched payload, this time a Progress craft bound for the ISS, crashed shortly after launch:
The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.
“Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly,” NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. “The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation.”
Now an unmanned spacecraft failing after launch wouldn’t be so much of a problem usually (apart from investigating why it happened) but the reason why this particular failure has everyone worried is the similarity between the human carrying Soyuz capsule and the Progress cargo craft that was on top of it. In essence they’re an identical craft with the Progress having a fuel pod instead of a crew capsule allowing it to refuel the ISS on orbit. A failure then with the Progress craft calls into question the Soyuz as well, especially when there’s been 2 launches so close to each other that have experienced problems.
From a crew safety perspective however the Soyuz should still be considered a safe craft. If an event such as the one that happened this week had a Soyuz rather than a Progress on top of it the crew would have been safe thanks to the launch escape system that flies on top of all manned Soyuz capsules. When a launch abort event occurs these rockets fire and pull the capsule safely away from the rest of the launch stack and thanks to the Soyuz’s design it can then descend back to earth on its usual ballistic trajectory. It’s not the softest of landings however, but it’s easily survivable.
The loss of cargo bound for the ISS does mean that some difficult decisions have to be made. Whilst they’re not exactly strapped for supplies at the moment (current estimates have them with a year of breathing room) the time required to do a full investigation into the failure does push other resupply and crew replacement missions back significantly. Russia currently has the only launch system capable of getting humans to and from the ISS and since they’re only a 3 person craft this presents the very real possibility that the ISS crew will be scaled back. Whilst I’m all aflutter for SpaceX their manned flights aren’t expected to come online until the middle of the decade and they’re the most advanced option at this point. If the problems with the Proton launch stack can be sorted expediently then the ISS may remain fully crewed, but only time will tell if this is the case.
The Soyuz and Progress series have proven to be some of the most reliable spacecraft developed to date and I have every confidence that Russia will be able to overcome these problems as they have done so in the past. Incidents like this demonstrate how badly commercialization of rudimentary space activities is required, especially when one of the former space powers doesn’t seem that interested in space anymore. Thankfully the developing private space industry is more than up to the challenge and we’re only a few short years away from these sorts of problems boiling down to switching manufacturers, rather than curtailing our efforts in space completely.
Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the sorry state of government funded space programs overseas I don’t have to look much further than SpaceX to feel inspired once again. From their humble beginnings back in 2002 they have shown they are capable of designing, building and launching rockets on a fraction of the budget that is currently required. Their ambition also seems to have no bounds with their CEO, Elon Musk, eyeing off a trip to Mars with the intent of retiring there. SpaceX is also the USA’s only launch system provider who’s got a roadmap for delivering humans to the International Space Station, a real necessity now that the shuttle fleet has retired.
You can then imagine how exciting it is to hear that SpaceX has received in principle approval from NASA to combine the next 2 Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) demonstration flights into one. That might not sound like much on the surface but it means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could be docking with the ISS this year:
Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.
NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.
That’s right, if everything stays on schedule (which, I’ll admit, isn’t very likely) then we’ll see a Dragon capsule docking with the ISS and the first time in history that a private company has docked with a space station. The mission will test all of the fligh avionics, communication systems and docking procedures that SpaceX have designed for the Dragon capsule. Whilst the Dragon going up there doesn’t appear to have a cargo manifest it will be bringing cargo back down from the ISS, which will be a good test to see if their current design has any flaws in it that can be rectified for future missions.
The current docking procedure for the Dragon capsule is surprisingly similar to that of JAXA’s HTV. For the COTS Demonstration 2 flight at least the Dragon capsule will fly very close to the ISS where it will then be captured by CANADARM2 which will guide it into a docking port. It’s interesting because from the past few missions I had assumed that the Dragon was capable of automated docking, especially with (what seemed to be) rather advanced DragonEye sensor being tested on previous shuttle flights. Still automated docking is quite a challenge and the captured route is a lot safer, both for SpaceX and the astronauts aboard the ISS.
The announcement also comes hand in hand with some improvements that SpaceX has made to their launch stack. They’ve installed new liquid oxygen pumps that now allow them to fully fill the Falcon 9 in under 30 minutes, a third of the time it use to require. This means that SpaceX could roll out, fuel and launch a Falcon 9 in under an hour something that hasn’t been possible with liquid fueled rockets in the past. They’re also ramping up their production facilities with an eye to have up to 16 launches per year, a phenomenal amount by any measure.
SpaceX continues to show that the private sector is quite capable of providing services that were for the longest time considered to be too expensive for anyone but the super power governments of the world. The announcement that a Dragon capsule could be visiting the ISS this year shows how much confidence NASA has in their capabilities and I’m sure that SpaceX will not fail to disappoint. We’re on the verge of a revolution in the space travel game and SpaceX are the pioneers who will lead us there.
There’s a saying amongst the space enthusiast community that the shuttle only continued on for so long in order to build the International Space Station and the ISS only existed so that the shuttle had some place to go. Indeed for the last 13 years of the shuttle program it pretty much exclusively visited the ISS taking only a few missions elsewhere, usually to service the Hubble Space Telescope. With the shuttle now retired many are looking now looking towards the future of the ISS and the various manned space programs that have contributed to its creation. It’s now looking very likely that the ISS will face the same fate as Mir did before it, but there are a multitude of possibilities of what could be done instead.
Originally the ISS was slated for decommission in 2016 and with it still not being fully constructed (it is expected to be finished by next year) that would give it a full useful life of only 4 years. The deadline was extended back in 2009 to 2020 in order to more closely match the designed functional lifetime of 7 years and hopefully recoup some of the massive investment that has gone into it. It was a good move and many of the ISS components are designed to last well beyond that deadline (especially the Russian ones which can be refurbished on orbit) and there’s still plenty of science that can be done using it as a platform.
The ISS, like Mir before it, has only one option for retirement: a fiery plunge through the atmosphere into a watery grave. Whilst there’s been lots of talk of boosting it up to a higher orbit, sending it to the moon or even using it as an interplanetary craft all these ideas are simply infeasible. The ISS was designed and built to be stuck in low earth orbit its entire life with many assumptions made that preclude it from going any further. It lacks the proper shielding to go any higher than say the Hubble Space Telescope and the structure is too weak to withstand the required amount of thrust that would get it to a transit orbit (at least in any reasonable time frame). The modifications required to make such ideas feasible would be akin to rebuilding the entire station again and thus to avoid cluttering up the already cluttered area of low earth orbit it must be sent back down to earth.
Russia however has expressed interest in keeping at least some of the parts of the ISS in orbit past the 2020 deadline. It appears they want to use them as a base for their next generation space station OPSEK. This space station would differ significantly from all the previous space stations in that it would be focused on deep space exploration activities rather than direct science like its predecessors were. It would seem that those plans have hit some roadblocks as the Russian Federal Space Agency has recently stated that the ISS will need to be de-orbited at the end of its life. Of course there’s still a good 8 years to go before this will happen and the space game could change completely between now and then, thanks in part to China and the private space industry.
China has tried to be part of the ISS project in the past but has usually faced strong opposition from the USA. So strong was the opposition that they have now started their own independent manned space program with an eye to set up their own permanent space station called Tiangong. China has already succeeded in putting several people into space and even successfully conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA), showing that they have much of the needed technology to build and maintain a presence in space. Coincidentally much of their technology was imported from Russia meaning that their craft are technically capable of docking with the Russian segments of the ISS. That’s also good news for Russia as well as their Soyuz craft could provide transport services to Tiangong in the future.
Private space companies are also changing the space ecosystem significantly, both in regards to transport costs and providing services in space. SpaceX has just been approved to roll up two of its demonstration missions to the ISS which means that the next Dragon capsule will actually end up docking with the ISS. Should this prove successful SpaceX would then begin flying routine cargo missions to the ISS and man rating of their capsule would begin in earnest. Couple this with Bigelow Aerospace gearing up to launch their next inflatable space habitat in 2014~2015 the possibility of the ISS being re-purposed by private industry becomes a possible (if slightly far fetched) idea.
The next decade is definitely going to be one of the most fascinating ones for space technologies. The power international power dynamic is shifting considerably with super powers giving way to private industry and new players wowing the world stage with the capabilities. We may not have a definitive future for the ISS but its creation and continued use has provided much of the ground work necessary to flag in the next era of space.
If you had asked me just on a year ago what I thought about astronomy, space and exploration outside our atmosphere I would’ve replied that it was interesting and probably left it at that. But after spending a year looking into such exciting projects as Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne I started to believe that it might be possible, in our lifetimes, for those who wish to travel into space to do it without spending untold millions for the privaledge. I think it was at that time I realised that if I wanted to do something like that, I should start filling my head with the knowledge of space.
What really got me started was looking at pictures of the vast array of space projects that America, Russian and now the European Union paticipate in. It was in my travels across the internet that I stumbled onto The Big Picture by The Boston Globe. They have some of the most awe inspiring pictures I have ever seen, and I believe everyone should see them. Of course, I’ll also point you in the direction of some of my choice series which got me hooked on the site in the first place 😉
Enceladus: An amazing array of pictures centered around this amazing moon of Saturn. Picture 2 is a piece of art and the animated picture 9 shows just how incredible it is that we have pictures like this.
The ISS, Shuttle and Baikonur Cosmodrome: Something a little more close to home that really shows the human effort involved in getting into space and maintaining a presence there. My favourite is definitely the ISS, I can stare at pictures of that place for hours on end.
It is my hope that one day we will all have the chance to take pictures like this, and not just look at them.
I’d love to say that ever since I was a little boy I would lie awake at night staring at the stars and wanting to go up there, but I would be wrong. As a kid I barely knew about the wonders of space and the kinds of technology that have taken us up there. It was only after I turned 21 did I start getting interested in space, only just on a year ago that I decided I would be visiting outer space in my lifetime, by any means possible.
Anyone who knows me will tell you how passionate I am about space and how humanity must become a spacefaring civilisation. As a child born many years after our glory days of landing on the moon I’ve only been able to witness humanities various robotic accomplishments (which are great and many) and the wonder that is the International Space Station. For the next 10 years though I will be on tenterhooks as we, hopefully, plan to make our glorious return to the moon and beyond. That gives me something to look forward to, no matter what else happens along the way.
The reason I’m so passionate about space is that whenever I start talking about it most people will only know about the Apollo missions, the Shuttle and possibly the Mars rovers. Few know about the bravery of the Mercury and Gemini Astronauts, or the amazing inginuity of the Mir space station. It seems that ever since the end of the Apollo missions, humanity has found space to be boring and kids don’t grow up wanting to be Astronauts anymore.
I’ve come into the world of Aeronautics late in life, and I sometimes lie awake at night wondering what kind of life I would be leading now if I realised that my passion lied in outer space. Who knows, I might be living in the United States right now eagerly awaiting my first shuttle flight (although, history has shown youngsters like myself aren’t usually considered for another few years). What I do appreciate though is that the world in its current state is on the verge of a critical mass in terms of space for the masses. Soon we will have sub-orbital flights (a la the Mercury Program) and when that all goes well, we’ll be seeing orbital flights not too long afterwards.
I guess I just long for the days when you asked kids what they wanted to be when they grow up many of them would say Astronaut. The reason I miss those days so much is because it meant that Space exploration was so mainstream that even the children knew about it and were excited to participate in it. We’re really still in the infancy of Space flight (regular flight has really only become mainstream in the past decade) so it is with our children that the future of humanity in Space will lie.
To get you a little inspired, here are some pictures from the recent shuttle mission STS-126, which upgraded the International Space Station in order for it to handle double the crew starting next year.