Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.
The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.
When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.
The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.
It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.
Whilst the debate among the space enthusiast community still rages about what the next target for human exploration should be those with the capability seem to have already made a decision: we’re going to Mars. NASA has committed to getting astronauts there some time around 2030 and SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, has long held the dream that he’d be retiring on Mars. There’s also the Mars One which, to my surprise, is still going and garnering attention worldwide even here in my home country. The lack of a return mission to the Moon does raise some questions about the technology that will be used as we don’t have any craft capable of going past low earth orbit, not since the Apollo program ended almost half a century ago.
NASA has been working on a new crew capsule for some time now, dubbed the Orion. Initially this was part of the planned 2020 mission to return to the Moon however the majority of that was scrapped in favour of going directly to Mars. The capsule and the revised launch system were retained however and will form the basis of NASA’s future manned space missions. However if the Moon is no longer the goal for this craft and it’s end goal will be long duration flight there’s a lot of testing that needs to be done before we send one of them to Mars. Interestingly NASA has gone for an incredibly ambitious mission to put the Orion’s long duration flight capabilities to the test: an asteroid capture and analysis mission.
There’s currently two mission profiles being considered, both of them seeming like something straight out of science fiction. The first (and I’ll guess least likely of the two) is a robotic craft will make its way to a large asteroid, break a chunk of it off and then bring it back into orbit around the moon. The second would be a straight up asteroid capture with the craft grabbing an asteroid in its entirety (it would be small, about 7m or so in diameter) and, again, putting it into lunar orbit. Then once the asteroid is in a stable orbit NASA will send crew to it in an Orion capsule to study it, testing out some of the long duration capabilities as well as other rudimentary space activities like EVAs.
Such a mission is actually quite feasible (at least the latter profile) from a technical perspective. Pretty much all the technology required to capture an asteroid of that size is available today and there’s already 6 candidate asteroids identified. The main issue I see with it is time as just getting to the asteroid is planned to take at least 4 years with another 2 to 6 required for it to make the trip back. That means if the mission were to launch today it could potentially take up to 2024 before it returns to us which doesn’t leave a lot of time for NASA to test out the Orion capsule on it, This could be sped up considerably by changing it’s launch profile to include a second stage rocket to boost it rather than relying on the ion thrusters to achieve escape velocity but that would come with additional expense. There’s also the possibility of foregoing the robotic part of this mission completely and just sending humans although that poses just as many challenges as going straight to mars.
I’m glad to see NASA making a return to missions like these, ones that truly push the envelop of humanity’s space capabilities. It’s going to be interesting to see how the mission develops as there’s lots of different variables that need to be sorted out, some that will change the mission dramatically. Still the thought of us being able to capture an asteroid, bring it into lunar orbit and then send humans to study it is just an incredible thing to think about and I truly hope NASA sees this one through to fruition.
The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.
STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.
Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.
Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.
Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.
There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.
The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.