Second chances in space missions are exceedingly rare. When something goes wrong it often means either a total loss of the mission or a significantly reduced outlook for what the mission can accomplish. Primarily this comes down to the tight engineering challenges that space missions face, with multiple redundant systems only able to cope with so much. Still every so often they happen and sometimes a new mission is born out one that might have been a failure. Such is the story of JAXA’s Akatsuki craft, one that has been lying in wait for the last 5 years waiting for its chance to fulfill its mission.
Akatsuki launched 5 years ago aboard JAXA’s H-IIA rocket. It was to be JAXA’s second interplanetary probe after their first, Nozomi, failed to reached its intended destination over a decade prior. The insertion burn was confirmed to have started on schedule, however after the communications blackout period where the probe was behind Venus it failed to reestablish communications at the expected time. It was found drifting away from Venus in safe mode, indicating that it had undergone some form of failure. In this state it was operating in a very low bandwidth mode and so it took some time to diagnose what had happened. As it turned out the main engine had fired for only 3 minutes before failing, not enough to put it in the required orbit.
However it was enough to put Akatsuki on a leading orbit with Venus, one that would eventually bring it back around to meet the planet some time in the future. It was then decided that JAXA would attempt recovery of the craft into a new orbit around Venus, a highly elliptical orbit with a period of almost 2 weeks (the originally intended orbital period was approximately 30 hours). Investigation into the craft’s damaged sustained during the first initial burn showed that the main engine was unusable and so the insertion burn would be performed by its attitude thrusters. JAXA had a lot of time to plan this as the next scheduled rendezvous would not happen for another 5 years.
Following some initial maneuvers back in July and September Akatsuki began its orbital insertion burn on the 7th of December. The small attitude thrusters, designed to keep the spacecraft oriented, fired for 20 straight minutes far beyond what they were originally designed for. They did their job however and 2 days later JAXA announced that they had successfully entered orbit around Venus, albeit in the far more elliptical orbit than they originally planned.
The extended duration in space has likely taken its toll on Akatsuki and so JAXA is currently undertaking a detailed investigation of its current status. 3 of its 6 cameras have shown to be fully functioning with the remainder scheduled to be brought online very soon. Scientific experiments using Akatsuki’s instruments won’t begin until sometime next year however as an orbital correction maneuver is planned to reduce Akatsuki’s orbit slightly. However JAXA is confident that the majority of their science objectives can be met, an amazing boon to both their team and the wider scientific community.
It’s incredibly heartening to see JAXA successfully recover the Akatsuki craft after such a monumental setback. The research conducted using data from the Akatsuki craft will give us insights into why Venus is such a strange beast, rotating slowly in opposite direction to every other planet in our solar system. Whilst I’d never wish failure upon anyone I know the lessons learnt from this experience will bolster JAXA’s future missions and, hopefully, their next one won’t suffer a similar fate.
Ever since getting things into orbit became a routine task the amount of stuff we’ve left floating around us in space has increased exponentially. Typically the debris that surround us are made up of the upper stages of rockets, disused satellites that can’t/won’t de-orbit for some time and, worst of all, innumerable other bits of miscellanea that are the result of things crashing into each other. This is the beginnings of a terrible self inflicted disease called Kessler Syndrome whereby the lower orbits are so littered with junk that launching anything becomes nigh on impossible, save for some drastic changes in technology. Thus it’s in our best interests to come up with some workable solutions to this issue and the engineers at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have come up with a very interesting solution.
Whilst most of the debris surrounding Earth will eventually make its way back down the time frame in which it will do so varies from years to centuries. Since the orbits are unstable it’s likely that they’ll change drastically over time and this means that the chance that they will collide with another bit of debris increases quite dramatically. This is the real crux of the issue as collisions of this nature create much more debris than their individual parts alone (it is also why all the collective space faring nations were a rather pissed at China for testing their anti-satellite missile). Whilst there’s not much we can do for the numerous small bits of debris orbiting Earth there’s a lot we can do for a specific type of space junk, specifically the upper stages of rockets, and this is what JAXA’s latest development targets.
The team at JAXA’s Innovative Technology Research Center have devised what they’re calling an electrodynamic tether to help combat the space debris issue. It consists of a small space craft, one could imagine something of cubesat size, that attaches to a large piece of debris via a long electrically conductive tether. Then, by virtue of the fact that Earth has a magnetic field and the tether is conductive, Lorentz forces then act to drag the two satellites back down to Earth. It’s a rather ingenious way of getting the junk to deorbit as it doesn’t rely on carrying massive amounts of propellant, making the craft infinitely smaller and far more efficient. It might only tackle a specific subset of the debris in space but their calculations show that this should be enough to prevent a runaway Kessler syndrome situation.
Probably the coolest thing about it, at least for me, was the preferred way of attaching the tether to the target. They have explored some regular options, namely coasting up to the craft and attaching it with a robotic arm, but since their targets are going to be the usually thin walled upper stages of craft they’re instead opting for a harpoon that will penetrate the hull of the craft. So in the future we could have a swarm of harpoon carrying cubesats orbiting us, ensuring that any large bit of space junk is brought to the fiery demise it so rightly deserves.
Of course this doesn’t mean the problem is completely solved but this could be enough of a stop gap solution whilst we figure out better ways of cleaning up our lower orbits. It’s not going to be an easy problem to solve, the energies required to get everything up there in the first place ensure that, but things like this show that there are highly efficient ways of dealing with it. All that’s required is for us to find them and, hopefully, deploy them before its too late.
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.
You know for all the writing on space I’ve done over the past few years I’ve never once mentioned one of the most intriguing ideas in this field: the space elevator. I’m not sure why I avoided it to be honest as the idea has good foundations in science and manages to generate a whole lot of interesting debate whenever it’s mentioned. It’s not like I haven’t talked about completely theoretical space technologies before either so today I’d like to introduce you to the space elevator concept and go over why it might (and might not) be the technology we should be pursuing in order to fundamentally change the way we access space.
At it’s core the space elevator is a simple idea. You see there’s an orbit around the earth where a satellite will, for all intents and purposes, remain steady over a point on the earth. Currently this space is filled with GPS and meteorological satellites since their mostly fixed position is highly desirable for such applications. These are referred to as geostationary orbits and they all lie directly above the earth’s equator. Theoretically then if you were to put a satellite at one of these orbits and then connect it directly to the place on earth which it hovers over you could then gain access to space by simply running up the cable, a damn sight more elegant than strapping everything to the top of a giant explosion and pointing it upwards.
This idea has numerous advantages over chemical rockets, not least of which is the significant reduction in cost in getting payloads into orbit. Most designs have the runners, the vehicles which “run” up the cable, being powered either directly from the cable itself or by power beaming technologies. This means that you’re not taking all your fuel up with you making the potential payloads much cheaper to deliver into orbit as you can use electricity generated on the ground. The end in geostationary orbit could also be used as a launch platform, enabling much bigger spacecraft to be built and launched into our solar system. It sounds like the perfect solution to many of the challenges behind getting into space but of course there’s always a catch.
The biggest challenge that a space elevator faces is finding a material capable of anchoring a satellite to the earth. Such a material needs to be light with an extremely high tensile strength, far beyond that of any metal or fiber that’s currently available. It also has be manufactured in great lengths on the order of 36000KMs to be able to reach the required height for geostationary orbits. To date the only material that has all these characteristics is carbon nanotubes which match the required strength and weight almost perfectly with the added benefit of being able to conduct electricity. However the inability to make them in lengths any greater than a few centimeters means that until mass fabrication method is discovered carbon nanotubes are unfortunately a pipe dream effectively killing any space elevator before it gets off the ground.
There are also many other factors that need to be considered before a working space elevator can be created. Whilst there’s little danger from the cable breaking to people on the ground (it would most likely flutter harmlessly down to earth) both the runners and the station need considerable contingency systems to be able to deal with this event. Also for payloads that require a non-geostationary orbit (I.E. low/high earth orbits) a space elevator does not provide any velocity to the craft, meaning to achieve a proper orbit you still need to hit Mach 25 unless you want to come back down to earth in a hurry. This is much easier when you’re in space, but it still means that you have to carry up significant amounts of fuel if that’s you’re goal.
Despite these problems however a space elevator is still an extremely attractive possibility and since most of the required technology is already available the idea is now starting to gain traction. Japan is planning to allocate some $10 billion into building the world’s first space elevator and whilst I’d forgive you for not taking them seriously Japan does in fact have a very good space program, they even run supply missions to the International Space Station. Such a commitment to the idea means that the space elevator has a strong possibility of becoming real in the next couple decades, and the flow on effects will have global implications.
Space was once only a realm for dreamers, then super governments and then finally the mega-rich. However the continued revolutions in this industry are driving the cost of space access down to unprecedented levels, serving to make space travel as commonplace as airline travel is today. It’s not going to happen today or in the next 10 years even, but we’re are on the cusp of a fundamental change to the world around us and it is on the back of a space elevator that we shall achieve it.
I won’t lie to you it’s been hard to be motivated about much with Canberra’s climate the way it is at the moment. Waking up to a backyard covered in frost, whilst beautiful in its own way, is a sure way to make me yearn for the comforts of my warm bed forsaking any work commitments. Despite that though I’ve had quite a few productive weekends huddle away from the icy bite of the outdoors and I’ve come to notice a lovely trend in the headlines gracing my feed reader: There’s been some tangible progress in almost all areas of space exploration and that never fails to make me extremely happy.
The first bit of news comes from Virgin Galactic. It’s been a while since we last heard from them after the maiden flightof SpaceShipTwo, almost 4 months to the day. Still that doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t been made and the announcement came out just recently that they had performed their first fully crewed flight:
A private suborbital spaceship built for the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic made its first flight with a crew onboard Thursday as it soared over California’s Mojave Desert beneath its enormous mothership.
The commercial spaceliner – called VSS Enterprise, one of the company’s fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft– did not try to reach space in the test flight. Instead, it stayed firmly attached to its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership.
The two crewmembers riding onboard VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spacecraft’s systems and functions during the 6-hour, 12-minute flight, Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement. In addition, automated sensors and ground crews conducted thorough vehicle systems tests.
Now that might not seem like much on the surface but it is in fact quite a giant step forward for Virgin Galactic and the Scaled Composites guys. The two craft soared to over 15KMs high, that’s nearly double the height that most passenger jets fly at. To put that in perspective that means that many of the life support components of the craft have been verified as at that altitude you wouldn’t last long without functioning life support, and definitely not the 6 hours they were up there for. Completing these tests brings the SpaceShipTwo dream that much closer to reality and with the commercial flights scheduled for 2011 I’m sure we’ll see a powered test flight before the year is out.
The second came in the form of my current space crush, SpaceX. It’s been little over a month since their Falcon 9 rocket soaredinto the history books and gave us Australians a lightshow to rival those that our Nordic cousins had experienced. This week brings news that so soon after their last launch they’re already gearing up for the next one, with the parts for a new Falcon 9 arriving at Cape Caranaveral:
Six weeks after the first Falcon 9 rocketed into orbit, pieces of the second launcher have begun arriving at Cape Canaveral for a shakedown flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in September, according to the company’s top executive.
The Falcon 9 first stage pulled into Cape Canaveral Thursday after a truck ride from SpaceX’s test site in central Texas.
The stage was placed inside the company’s rocket assembly hangar at launch pad 40. Officials said they untarped the rocket and completed initial inspections Thursday night.
Engineers plan more testing over the next several weeks to make sure the stage and its nine Merlin engines are ready for flight.
Again it might not seem like a lot but it’s a testament to the fact that SpaceX is quite serious about being a fully fledged orbital launch company competing with the giants of Boeing and Lockheed who’ve dominated this sector for decades. Additionally it shows that many of the processes that are required for them to be able to churn out a respectable number of rockets are in place and working beautifully, rather than the recent launch being nothing than a one off prototype ala Ares 1-X. The next flight, which looks to be on track for a launch towards the end of this year, will fly the first fully functional Dragon capsule complete with full avionics, life support and most importantly the heat shield for re-entry. The current specs of the Dragon capsule have it rated to be able to return to Earth from missions to the Moon and Mars, something that suprised the entire space community. I have no doubt that it is quite capable of this and it gives me the feeling that Elon Musk might have dreams of going far beyond LEO with SpaceX. I’m getting all giddy just thinking about it.
The last, and most impressive, is something that any science fiction fan will tell you is possible but until just recently it wasn’t actually used as the primary means of propelling a space craft. IKAROS, a craft I wrote about 2 months ago, unfurled its sails and successfully used the sun’s radiation pressure to propel the craft through space:
We’ve been following the progress of the Japanese spaceship IKAROS — the first to unfurl a solar sail in deep space. Today, the ship made the only first that really matters: it caught the sun’s rays with its 3,000 square-foot sail and successfully used the energy to speed its way through space.
Each photon of light exerts 0.0002 pounds of pressure on the 3,000-square-foot sail, and one after another they succeeded in propelling the nearly 700-pound drone. Japanese scientists expect to be able to control IKAROS’s velocity by adjusting the angle at which incoming radiation strikes the sails. For a full technical explanation of how the drone is moving, check out the Japanese space agency JAXA’s press release.
Solar sail technology is important because it allows spacecraft to travel without fuel, which could allow them to penetrate ever deeper into space.
This is probably one of the biggest advances in space technology we’ve seen in quite a long time. Solar sails have the potential to propel craft to speeds far beyond any of our current craft and rivalling even some of the theoretical nuclear craft. Of course there is still a long way to go until this can be used for larger craft (IKAROS is ~300kg) but the demonstration verifies that several key technologies function as expected and produce the required results. This success means there’s a good chance that the proposed larger solar sail craft will get the funding it needs to bring it into reality. I can’t wait to see what kinds of interesting missions solar sails will make possible.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write one of these starry eyed posts about space and I’ll be honest it feels good to be able to do it. Space is one of those things that I always find myself losing hours on and being able to share some of that wonder with an audience always gives me such a great feeling of accomplishment. I know one day, thanks to the achievements outlined here, that I’ll be able to venture into space and share in the impressive achievement that is humanity reaching out into space.
Interesting, if you turn the clock back a year it seems that I wrote a very similar post to this one, coincidence? Most likely 😉
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 🙂