They’ve Got Spacesuits that Fit Now. Christina Koch and Jessica Meir Will Spacewalk on October 21st

The all-female astronaut walk is back on.

Back on March 26th, 2019, NASA was forced to cancel the first all-female spacewalk because they didn’t have the right spacesuits available on the ISS. There was a short-lived social media storm over that development, as some claimed it was evidence of sexism on the part of NASA. But that small storm didn’t have legs and it died out, because no serious-minded observer thinks that NASA is actually sexist.

Now, the problem has been worked out, and the spacewalk will happen on October 21st, when astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir will walk outside the ISS and install new lithium-ion batteries. Theirs is the first of five walks needed to complete the installation.

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Nine Astronauts from Four Different Space Agencies are on the International Space Station Right Now

The International Space Station’s usual complement of six astronauts grew by 50% recently, making things a little crowded up there. The nine astronauts come from four separate space agencies, and for the first time, an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is onboard the ISS.

The ISS is a multicultural place. Astronauts from around the world serve on the station to advance the scientific goals of humanity and to build cooperative ties between Earth’s different peoples. It’s kind of like Star Trek, but in space.

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Astronauts Explore Caves on Earth, Learning the Skills They’ll Need for the Moon and Mars

We’re accustomed to astronauts pulling off their missions without a hitch. They head up to the International Space Station for months at a time and do what they do, then come home. But upcoming missions to the surface of the Moon, and maybe Mars, present a whole new set of challenges.

One way astronauts are preparing for those challenges is by exploring the extreme environment inside caves.

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New Ideas to Reduce Muscle Loss During Spaceflight

One of the obstacles to long space missions is the muscle loss that astronauts suffer from. It’s called atrophy, and NASA says that astronauts can lose up to 20% muscle mass during missions of only 5 to 11 days. This muscle loss affects what are called “anti-gravity muscles,” including calf muscles, the quadriceps and the muscles of the back and neck.

This muscle loss makes it hard for astronauts to complete their tasks, especially when missions to Mars happen. It can also be very dangerous to astronauts, because they’re weakened when they return to Earth. If there are problems during re-entry, and they need to perform any strenuous emergency procedures, that missing muscle could be the difference between life and death.

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Soyuz Launch Carrying Two Astronauts is Forced to Abort, Landing Safely Back on Earth

Soyuz MS-10 shortly after launch, but before the failure. The craft executed an emergency ballistic landing and both crew members are safe. Image: NASA

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying crew to the ISS was aborted shortly after launch on Thursday, Oct. 11th when its booster failed. The spacecraft executed an emergency ballistic landing with a sharp angle of descent. Both crew members on board—American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin—exited the capsule safely and are in good condition.

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Astronauts Could Use the ScanMars Device to Search for Water on Mars

Analogue astronauts have tested a ground-penetrating radar named ScanMars at a Mar-like area in Oman. Image: OEWF – Austrian Space Forum

There’s solid evidence for the existence of water on Mars, at least in frozen form at the planet’s poles. And a more recent study confirms the existence of liquid water at the south pole. But visitors to Mars will need to know the exact location of usable water deposits at other Martian locations. A ground-penetrating radar called ScanMars may be up to the task.

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India Shows off the Spacesuit its Astronauts Will be Using in 2022

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has made immense progress since the turn of the century. From its humble beginnings, launching satellites into orbit between 1975 and 2000, the ISRO sent their first mission to the Moon in October of 2008 (the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter), followed by their first mission to Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – in November of 2013.

And in the coming years, the ISRO intends to become the fourth space agency to send astronauts into space. In so doing, they will join an exclusive club of space agencies that consists of only Russia, the United States and China. Last week (on September 7th, 2018) the organization unveiled the spacesuit that their astronauts will be wearing when they make this historic journey.

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Astronaut Scott Tingle Was Able To Control A Ground-Based Robot… From Space.

If something called “Project METERON” sounds to you like a sinister project involving astronauts, robots, the International Space Station, and artificial intelligence, I don’t blame you. Because that’s what it is (except for the sinister part.) In fact, the Meteron Project (Multi-Purpose End-to-End Robotic Operation Network) is not sinister at all, but a friendly collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR.)

The idea behind the project is to place an artificially intelligent robot here on Earth under the direct control of an astronaut 400 km above the Earth, and to get the two to work together.

“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance.” – Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager.

On March 2nd, engineers at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics set up the robot called Justin in a simulated Martian environment. Justin was given a simulated task to carry out, with as few instructions as necessary. The maintenance of solar panels was the chosen task, since they’re common on landers and rovers, and since Mars can get kind of dusty.

Justin is a pretty cool looking robot. Image: (DLR) German Aerospace Center (CC-BY 3.0)

The first test of the METERON Project was done in August. But this latest test was more demanding for both the robot and the astronaut issuing the commands. The pair had worked together before, but since then, Justin was programmed with more abstract commands that the operator could choose from.

American astronaut Scott Tingle issued commands to Justin from a tablet aboard the ISS, and the same tablet also displayed what Justin was seeing. The human-robot team had practiced together before, but this test was designed to push the pair into more challenging tasks. Tingle had no advance knowledge of the tasks in the test, and he also had no advance knowledge of Justin’s new capabilities. On-board the ISS, Tingle quickly realized that the panels in the simulation down here were dusty. They were also not pointed in the optimal direction.

This was a new situation for Tingle and for Justin, and Tingle had to choose from a range of commands on the tablet. The team on the ground monitored his choices. The level of complexity meant that Justin couldn’t just perform the task and report it completed, it meant that Tingle and the robot also had to estimate how clean the panels were after being cleaned.

“Our team closely observed how the astronaut accomplished these tasks, without being aware of these problems in advance and without any knowledge of the robot’s new capabilities,” says DLR engineer Daniel Leidner.

Streaks of dust or sand on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity show what can happen to solar panels on the red planet. For any more permanent structures that we may put on Mars, an artificially intelligent maintenance robot under the control of an astronaut in orbit could be the perfect solution to the maintenance of solar panels. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next test will take place in Summer 2018 and will push the system even further. Justin will have an even more complex task before him, in this case selecting a component on behalf of the astronaut and installing it on the solar panels. The German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst will be the operator.

If the whole point of this is not immediately clear to you, think Mars exploration. We have rovers and landers working on the surface of Mars to study the planet in increasing detail. And one day, humans will visit the planet. But right now, we’re restricted to surface craft being controlled from Earth.

What METERON and other endeavours like it are doing, is developing robots that can do our work for us. But they’ll be smart robots that don’t need to be told every little thing. They are just given a task and they go about doing it. And the humans issuing the commands could be in orbit around Mars, rather than being exposed to all the risks on the surface.

“Artificial intelligence allows the robot to perform many tasks independently, making us less susceptible to communication delays that would make continuous control more difficult at such a great distance,” explained Neil Lii, DLR Project Manager. “And we also reduce the workload of the astronaut, who can transfer tasks to the robot.” To do this, however, astronauts and robots must cooperate seamlessly and also complement one another.

These two images from the camera on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor show the effect that a global dust storm has on Mars. On the left is a normal view of Mars, on the right is Mars obscured by the haze from a dust storm. Image: NASA/JPL/MSSS

That’s why these tests are important. Getting the astronaut and the robot to perform well together is critical.

“This is a significant step closer to a manned planetary mission with robotic support,” says Alin Albu-Schäffer, head of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. It’s expensive and risky to maintain a human presence on the surface of Mars. Why risk human life to perform tasks like cleaning solar panels?

“The astronaut would therefore not be exposed to the risk of landing, and we could use more robotic assistants to build and maintain infrastructure, for example, with limited human resources.” In this scenario, the robot would no longer simply be the extended arm of the astronaut: “It would be more like a partner on the ground.”

Special Skinsuits Could Help Astronauts Avoid Back Pain When Their Spines Expand In Space

The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.

A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.

The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.

Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)

Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”

In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”

The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.

ESA astronauts have tested the SkinSuit both in weightless parabolic flights, and on-board the ISS. Image: CNES/Novespace, 2014

The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.

Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.

“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.

The SkinSuit has evolved through several designs to make it more wearable, comfortable, and effective. Image: Kings College London/Philip Carvill

Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.

“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”

“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”