X-rays Might be a Better Way to Communicate in Space

In the coming years, thousands of satellites, several next-generation space telescopes and even a few space habitats are expected to be launched into orbit. Beyond Earth, multiple missions are planned to be sent to the lunar surface, to Mars, and beyond. As humanity’s presence in space increases, the volume of data that is regularly being back sent to Earth is reaching the limits of what radio communications can handle.

For this reason, NASA and other space agencies are looking for new methods for sending information back and forth across space. Already, optical communications (which rely on lasers to encode and transmit information) are being developed, but other more radical concepts are also being investigating. These include X-ray communications, which NASA is gearing up to test in space using their XCOM technology demonstrator.

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Extreme Bacteria on the Space Station are Evolving to Handle the Harsh Conditions, not to Make Astronauts Sick

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

For years, scientists have been conducting studies aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to determine the effects of living in space on humans and micro-organisms. In addition to the high levels of radiation, there are also worries that long-term exposure to microgravity could cause genetic mutations. Understanding these, and coming up with counter-measures, is essential if humanity is to become a truly space-faring species.

Interestingly enough, a team of researchers from Northwestern University recently conducted a study with bacteria that was kept aboard the ISS. Contrary to what many suspected, the bacteria did not mutate into a drug-resistant super strain, but instead mutated to adapt to its environment. These results could be vital when it comes to understanding how living beings will adapt to the stressful environment of space.

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Russian Cosmonaut says that the Hole in the ISS was Drilled From the Inside

Back in August, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) was surprised to learn that a leak was responsible for a slight loss in air pressure aboard the station. After investigating, they learned that the cause was a small hole in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that had docked with the ISS. While the hole was promptly sealed, the cause of it has remained a mystery ever since.

To determine a possible cause, and inspect the external hole on the spacecraft, the crew of Expedition 57 conducted an “unprecedented spacewalk” on Dec. 11th. After collecting samples from the outside of the craft, flight engineers Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev concluded that the hole had been drilled from inside the capsule, a finding which raises even more questions.

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Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria has been Found on the Space Station’s Toilet

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

NASA keeps a close eye on the bacteria inhabiting the International Space Station with a program called the Microbial Observatory (M.O.) The ISS is home to a variety of microbes, some of which pose a threat to the health of astronauts. As part of their monitoring, the M.O. has discovered antibiotic resistant bacteria on the toilet seat on the ISS.
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To Avoid Vision Problems in Space, Astronauts Will Need Some Kind of Artificial Gravity

Ever since astronauts began going to space for extended periods of time, it has been known that long-term exposure to zero-gravity or microgravity comes with its share of health effects. These include muscle atrophy and loss of bone density, but also extend to other areas of the body leading to diminished organ function, circulation, and even genetic changes.

For this reason, numerous studies have been conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to determine the extent of these effects, and what strategies can be used to mitigate them. According to a new study which recently appeared in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, a team of NASA and JAXA-funded researchers showed how artificial gravity should be a key component of any future long-term plans in space.

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A Japanese Company is About to Test a Tiny Space Elevator… in Space

Let’s be honest, launching things into space with rockets is a pretty inefficient way to do things. Not only are rockets expensive to build, they also need a ton of fuel in order to achieve escape velocity. And while the costs of individual launches are being reduced thanks to concepts like reusable rockets and space planes, a more permanent solution could be to build a Space Elevator.

And while such a project of mega-engineering is simply not feasible right now, there are many scientists and companies around the world that are dedicated to making a space elevator a reality within our lifetimes. For example, a team of Japanese engineers from Shizuoka University‘s Faculty of Engineering recently created a scale model of a space elevator that they will be launching into space tomorrow (on September 11th).

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The Coldest Place in Space Has Been Created. Next Challenge, Coldest Place in the Universe

Despite decades of ongoing research, scientists are trying to understand how the four fundamental forces of the Universe fit together. Whereas quantum mechanics can explain how three of these forces things work together on the smallest of scales (electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces), General Relativity explains how things behaves on the largest of scales (i.e. gravity). In this respect, gravity remains the holdout.

To understand how gravity interacts with matter on the tiniest of scales, scientists have developed some truly cutting-edge experiments. One of these is NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), located aboard the ISS, which recently achieved a milestone by creating clouds of atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs). This was the first time that BECs have been created in orbit, and offers new opportunities to probe the laws of physics.

Originally predicted by Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein 71 years ago, BECs are essentially ultracold atoms that reach temperatures just above absolute zero, the point at which atoms should stop moving entirely (in theory). These particles are long-lived and precisely controlled, which makes them the ideal platform for studying quantum phenomena.

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), which consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tyler Winn

This is the purpose of the CAL facility, which is to study ultracold quantum gases in a microgravity environment. The laboratory was installed in the US Science Lab aboard the ISS in late May and is the first of its kind in space. It is designed to advance scientists’ ability to make precision measurements of gravity and study how it interacts with matter at the smallest of scales.

As Robert Thompson, the CAL project scientist and a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a recent press release:

“Having a BEC experiment operating on the space station is a dream come true. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but completely worth the struggle, because there’s so much we’re going to be able to do with this facility.”

About two weeks ago, CAL scientists confirmed that the facility had produced BECs from atoms of rubidium – a soft, silvery-white metallic element in the alkali group. According to their report, they had reached temperatures as low as 100 nanoKelvin, one-ten million of one Kelvin above absolute zero (-273 °C; -459 °F). This is roughly 3 K (-270 °C; -454 °F) colder than the average temperature of space.

Because of their unique behavior, BECs are characterized as a fifth state of matter, distinct from gases, liquids, solids and plasma. In BECs, atoms act more like waves than particles on the macroscopic scale, whereas this behavior is usually only observable on the microscopic scale. In addition, the atoms all assume their lowest energy state and take on the same wave identity, making them indistinguishable from one another.

The”physics package” inside the Cold Atom Lab, where ultracold clouds of atoms called Bose-Einstein condensates are produced. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tyler Winn

In short, the atom clouds begin to behave like a single “super atom” rather than individual atoms, which makes them easier to study. The first BECs were produced in a lab in 1995 by a science team consisting of Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman and Wolfgang Ketterle, who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for their accomplishment. Since that time, hundreds of BEC experiments have been conducted on Earth and some have even been sent into space aboard sounding rockets.

But the CAL facility is unique in that it is the first of its kind on the ISS, where scientists can conduct daily studies over long periods. The facility consists of two standardized containers, which consist of the larger “quad locker” and the smaller “single locker”. The quad locker contains CAL’s physics package, the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultra-cold atoms.

This is done by using magnetic fields or focused lasers to create frictionless containers known as “atom traps”. As the atom cloud decompresses inside the atom trap, its temperature naturally drops, getting colder the longer it remains in the trap. On Earth, when these traps are turned off, gravity causes the atoms to begin moving again, which means they can only be studied for fractions of a second.

Aboard the ISS, which is a microgravity environment, BECs can decompress to colder temperatures than with any instrument on Earth and scientists are able to observe individual BECs for five to ten seconds at a time and repeat these measurements for up to six hours per day. And since the facility is controlled remotely from the Earth Orbiting Missions Operation Center at JPL, day-to-day operations require no intervention from astronauts aboard the station.

JPL scientists and members of the Cold Atom Lab’s atomic physics team (left to right) David Aveline, Ethan Elliott and Jason Williams. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Robert Shotwell, the chief engineer of JPL’s astronomy and physics directorate, has overseen the project since February 2017. As he indicated in a recent NASA press release:

“CAL is an extremely complicated instrument. Typically, BEC experiments involve enough equipment to fill a room and require near-constant monitoring by scientists, whereas CAL is about the size of a small refrigerator and can be operated remotely from Earth. It was a struggle and required significant effort to overcome all the hurdles necessary to produce the sophisticated facility that’s operating on the space station today.”

Looking ahead, the CAL scientists want to go even further and achieve temperatures that are lower than anything achieved on Earth. In addition to rubidium, the CAL team is also working towards making BECSs using two different isotopes of potassium atoms. At the moment, CAL is still in a commissioning phase, which consists of the operations team conducting a long series of tests see how the CAL facility will operate in microgravity.

However, once it is up and running, five science groups – including groups led by Cornell and Ketterle – will conduct experiments at the facility during its first year. The science phase is expected to begin in early September and will last three years. As Kamal Oudrhiri, JPL’s mission manager for CAL, put it:

“There is a globe-spanning team of scientists ready and excited to use this facility. The diverse range of experiments they plan to perform means there are many techniques for manipulating and cooling the atoms that we need to adapt for microgravity, before we turn the instrument over to the principal investigators to begin science operations.”

Given time, the Cold Atom Lab (CAL) may help scientists to understand how gravity works on the tiniest of scales. Combined with high-energy experiments conducted by CERN and other particle physics laboratories around the world, this could eventually lead to a Theory of Everything (ToE) and a complete understanding of how the Universe works.

And be sure to check out this cool video (no pun!) of the CAL facility as well, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: NASA

NASA is Looking for New Ways to Deal With Trash on Deep Space Missions

Life aboard the International Space Station is characterized by careful work and efficiency measures. Not only do astronauts rely on an average of 12 metric tons of supplies a year – which is shipped to the station from Earth – they also produce a few metric tons of garbage. This garbage must be carefully stored so that it doesn’t accumulate, and is then sent back to the surface on commercial supply vehicles.

This system works well for a station in orbit. But what about spacecraft that are conducted long-duration missions? These ships will not have the luxury of meeting with a regular cadence of commercial ships that will drop off supplies and haul away their garbage. To address this, NASA is investigating possible solutions for how to handle space trash for deep space missions.

For this purpose, NASA is turning to its partners in the commercial sector to develop concepts for Trash Compaction and Processing Systems (TCPS). In a solicitation issued through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA recently issued a Board Agency Announcement that called for the creation of prototypes and eventually flight demonstrations that would fly to the ISS.

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

The details of the proposal were outlined in Appendix F of the Board Agency Announcement, titled “Logistics Reduction in Space by Trash Compaction and Processing System“. As they state in this section:

“NASA’s ultimate goal is to develop capabilities to enable missions that are not reliant on resupply from Earth thus making them more sustainable and affordable. NASA is implementing this by employing a capability-driven approach to its human spaceflight strategy. The approach is based on developing a suite of evolving capabilities that provide specific functions to solve exploration challenges. These investments in initial capabilities can continuously be leveraged and reused, enabling more complex operations over time and exploration of more distant solar system destinations.”

When it comes right down to it, storing trash inside a spacecraft is serious challenge. Not only does it consume precious volume, it can also create physical and biological hazards for the crew. Storing garbage also means that leftover resources can not be repurposed or recycled. All told, the BAA solicitation is looking for solutions that will compact trash, remove biological and physical hazards, and recover resources for future use.

To this end, they are looking for ideas and technologies for a TCPS that could operate on future generations of spaceships. As part of the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Habitat’s Logistics Reduction (LR), the TCPS is part of NASA’s larger goal of identifying and developing technologies that reduce logistical mass, volume, and the amount of time the crew dedicates to logistics management.

NASA’ Heat Melt Compactor (HMC), a device that will recover residual water from astronaut’s trash and compact the trash to provide volume reduction, or perhaps some usefulness as an ionizing radiation shield. Credit: NASA

The objectives of the TCPS , as is stated in the Appendix, are fourfold:

“(1) trash compaction to a suitable form for efficient long-endurance storage; (2) safe processing of trash to eliminate and/or reduce the risk of biological activity; (3) stabilize the trash physically, geometrically, and biologically; and (4) manage gaseous, aqueous, and particulate effluents. The TCPS will be the first step toward development and testing of a fully-integrated unit for further Exploration Missions and future space vehicles.”

The development will occur in two phases. In Phase A, selected companies will create a concept TCPS system, conduct design reviews with NASA, and validate them through prototype ground demonstrations. In Phase B, a system will be prepared for transport to the ISS so that a demonstration cant take place aboard the station as early as 2022.

The various companies that submit proposals will not be working in the dark, as NASA has been developing waste management systems since the 1980s. These include recent developments like the Heat Melt Compactor (HMC) experiment, a device that will recover residual water from astronaut’s garbage and compact trash to provide volume reduction (or perhaps an ionizing radiation shield).

The Kounotori2 H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-2), after taken on the ISS’ trash, is moved from the space station by the Canadarm 2 to await the arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission. Credit: NASA

Other examples include the “trash to gas” technologies, which are currently being pursued under the Logistics Reduction and Repurposing project (LRR). Using the HMC, this process involves creating methane gas from trash to make rocket propellant. Together, these technologies would not only allow astronauts on long-duration spaceflights to conserve room, but also extract useful resources from their garbage.

NASA plans to host an industry day on July 24th in order to let potential industry partners know exactly what they are looking for, describe available NASA facilities, and answer questions from potential respondents. Official proposals from aspiring partners are due no later than August 22nd, 2018, and whichever proposals make the cut will be tested on the ISS in the coming decade!

Further Reading: NASA, FBO

A Satellite With a Harpoon, Net and Drag Sail to Capture Space Junk is in Orbit and Will be Tested Soon

After almost seventy years of spaceflight, space debris has become a rather serious problem. This junk, which floats around in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), consists of the spent first rocket stages and non-functioning satellites and poses a major threat to long-term missions like the International Space Station and future space launches. And according to numbers released by the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), the problem is only getting worse.

In addition, space agencies and private aerospace companies hope to launch considerably more in the way of satellites and space habitats in the coming years. As such, NASA has begun experimenting with a revolutionary new idea for removing space debris. It is known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, which recently deployed from the ISS to conduct a series of Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations.

This satellite was assembled by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and the Surrey Space Center (at the University of Surrey in the UK) and contains experiments provided by multiple European aerospace companies. It measures roughly 1 meter (3 feet) on a side and weighs about 100 kg (220 lbs), making it the largest satellite deployed to the ISS to date.

The purpose of the RemoveDebris spacecraft is to demonstrate the effectiveness of debris nets and harpoons at capturing and removing space debris from orbit. As Sir Martin Sweeting, the Chief Executive of SSTL, said in a recent statement:

“SSTL’s expertise in designing and building low cost, small satellite missions has been fundamental to the success of RemoveDEBRIS, a landmark technology demonstrator for Active Debris Removal missions that will begin a new era of space junk clearance in Earth’s orbit.”

Aside from the Surrey Space Center and SSTL, the consortium behind the RemoveDebris spacecraft includes Airbus Defense and Space – the world’s second largest space company – Airbus Safran Launchers, Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS), CSEM, Inria, and Stellenbosch University. The spacecraft, according to the Surrey Space Center’s website, consists of the following:

“The mission will comprise of a main satellite platform (~100kg) that once in orbit will deploy two CubeSats as artificial debris targets to demonstrate some of the technologies (net capture, harpoon capture, vision-based navigation, dragsail de-orbitation). The project is co-funded by the European Commission and the project partners, and is led by the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), University of Surrey, UK.”

For the sake of the demonstration, the “mothership” will deploy two cubesates which will simulate two pieces of space junk. For the first experiment, one of the CubeSats  – designated DebrisSat 1 – will inflate its onboard balloon in order to simulate a larger piece of junk. The RemoveDebris spacecraft will then deploy its net to capture it, then guide it into the Earth’s atmosphere where the net will be released.

The second CubeSat, named DebrisSat 2, will be used to test the mothership’s tracking and ranging lasers, its algorithms, and its vision-based navigation technology. The third experiment, which will test the harpoon’s ability to capture orbiting space debris, is set to take place next March. For legal reasons, the harpoon will not be tested on an actual satellite, and will instead consist of the mothership extending an arm with a target on the end.

The harpoon will then be fired on a tether at 20 meters per second (45 mph) to tests it accuracy. After being launched to the station back on April 2nd, the satellite was deployed from the ISS’ Japanese Kibo lab module on June 20th by the stations’ Canadian robotic arm. As Guillermo Aglietti, the director of the Surrey Space Center, explained in an interview with SpaceFlight Now before the spacecraft was launched to the ISS:

“The net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to … going with a robotic arm, because if the debris is spinning very fast, and you try to capture it with a robotic arm, then clearly there is a problem. In addition, if you are to capture the debris with a robotic arm or a gripper, you need somewhere you can grab hold of your piece of debris without breaking off just a chunk of it.”

The net experiment is currently scheduled for September of 2018 while the second experiment is scheduled for October. When these experiments are complete, the mothership will deploy its dragsail to act as a braking mechanism. This expandable sail will experience collisions with air molecules in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, gradually reducing its orbit until it enters the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.

This sail will ensure that the spacecraft deorbits within eights weeks of its deployment, rather than the estimated two-and-half years it would take to happen naturally. In this respect, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will demonstrate that it is capable of tackling the problem of space debris while not adding to it.

In the end, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will test a number of key technologies designed to make orbital debris removal as simple and cost-effective as possible. If it proves effective, the ISS could be receiving multiple RemoveDebris spacecraft in the ftureu, which could then be deployed gradually to remove larger pieces of space debris that threaten the station and operational satellites.

Conor Brown is the external payloads manager of Nanoracks LLC, the company that developed the Kaber system aboard the Kibo lab module to accommodate the increasing number of MicroSats being deployed from the ISS. As he expressed in a recent statement:

“It’s wonderful to have helped facilitate this ground-breaking mission. RemoveDebris is demonstrating some extremely exciting active debris removal technologies that could have a major impact to how we manage space debris moving forward. This program is an excellent example of how small satellite capabilities have grown and how the space station can serve as a platform for missions of this scale. We’re all excited to see the results of the experiments and impact this project may have in the coming years.”

In addition to the RemoveDebris spacecraft, the ISS recently received a new tool for detecting space debris. This is known as the Space Debris Sensor (SDS), a calibrated impact sensor mounted on the exterior of the station to monitor impacts caused by small-scale space debris. Coupled with technologies designed to clean up space debris, improved monitoring will ensure that the commercialization (and perhaps even colonization) of LEO can begin.

Further Reading: Spaceflight Now, RemoveDEBRIS