Earlier today (Monday, Dec. 3rd), private aerospace giant SpaceX launched its Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission. The launch took place from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aboard the rocket were 64 spacecraft, consisting of microsatellites, cubesates, technology demonstrators and educational research endeavors.
This mission was a milestones for a number of reasons. For Spaceflight Industries, which arranged for the cargo to be delivered to a Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit (SSO), it was the largest single rideshare to be launched from US soil. For SpaceX, it was the third time that the rocket’s first stage booster had been launched and retrieved, bringing us ever closer to the day when Elon Musk’s vision of completely reusable rockets becomes a reality.
For years, Elon Musk has talked about his plans to provide broadband internet access to the world using a constellation of satellites. Known as Starlink, this constellation was originally going to of nearly 12,000 low-cost satellites providing a terabit internet service. The first batch of these satellites is scheduled to launch in June of 2019, with the full constellation being deployed by the mid-2020s.
While the bare bones of this plan have been public knowledge for some time, Musk and the company he founded to reinvigorate space exploration have been somewhat scant on the details. But thanks to a simulation created by Prof. Mark Handley of University College London, the world may finally get an idea of what Starlink might look like.
One of the most cited reasons and benefits of space exploration is the way it brings people together. Think of iconic moments, like the Moon Landing or the launch of Yuri Gagarin (the first man to go into space), and the impact they had on their respective generations. Looking to the future, there are many who hope to use space exploration to bring people from all walks of life and nationalities together again.
One such person is Trevor Paglen – an American artist, geographer, and author – who plans to launch a reflective, nonfunctional satellite into low Earth orbit (LEO) this year. This initiative, known as the Orbital Reflector (which is scheduled to launch sometime this fall), is designed to encourage humanity to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder and purpose, and contemplate how we can all live together here on Earth.
Space junk is a growing problem. For decades we have been sending satellites into orbit around Earth. Some of them de-orbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, or crash into the surface. But most of the stuff we send into orbit is still up there.
This is becoming an acute problem as years go by and we launch more and more hardware into orbit. Since the very first satellite—Sputnik 1—was launched into orbit in 1957, over 8000 satellites have ben placed in orbit. As of 2018, an estimated 4900 are still in orbit. About 3000 of those are not operational. They’re space junk. The risk of collision is growing, and scientists are working on solutions. The problem will compound itself over time, as collisions between objects create more pieces of debris that have to be dealt with.
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).
Stand outside and take deep breath. Do you know what you’re breathing? For most people, the answer is simple – air. And air, which is essential to life as we know it, is composed of roughly twenty-percent oxygen gas (O²) and seventy-eight percent nitrogen gas (N²). However, within the remaining one-percent and change are several other trace gases, as well as few other ingredients that are not always healthy.
When it comes to space exploration, the motto “keep it simple” isn’t always followed! For the most part, satellites, spacecraft, telescopes, and the many other technologies that allow humans to study and explore the Universe are the result of highly-technical and complex feats of engineering. But sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that offer the most innovative solutions.
This is especially true when it comes to the today’s space agencies, who are concerned with cutting costs and increasing accessibility to space. A good example is the Fenix propulsion system, a proposal created by Italian tech company D-Orbit. As part of the last year’s Space Exploration Masters, this pen-sized booster will allow CubeSats to maneuver and accomplish more in space.
The Space Exploration Masters, which the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated in 2017, seeks to encourage space-based innovation and provide opportunities for commercial development. As such, this annual competition has become central to the implementation of the ESA Space Exploration strategy. For their application last year, D-Orbit was jointly awarded the the ESA and Space Application Services prize.
The thruster prototype itself measures only 10 cm long and 2 cm wide (~4 by 0.8 inches) and contain solid propellant that is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters are designed to be placed at each corner of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSat, or can be doubled up for added thrust. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space or add significantly to a CubeSat’s weight.
Currently, CubeSats are deployed directly into space, deorbit at the end of their missions, and have no means to change their orbits. But with this simple, chemical-propellant thruster, CubeSats could function for longer periods and would be able to take on more complicated missions. For instance, if they can maneuver in orbit, they will be able to study the Moon and asteroids from different angles.
In addition, boosters will allow CubeSats to deorbit themselves once they are finished their missions, thus reducing the threat of space debris. According to the latest report from the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), an estimated 19,894 bits of space junk were circling our planet by the end of 2017, with a combined mass of at least 8135 metric tons (8967 US tons). This problem is only expected to get worse.
In fact, it is estimated that the small satellite market will grow by $5.3 billion in the next decade (according to Space Works and Eurostat) and many private companies are looking to provide regular launch services to accommodate that growth. As such, a propulsion system that not only presents opportunities to do more with CubeSats, but in a way that will not add to problem of space debris, will be highly sought-after.
In addition to the ESA and Space Application Services prize, D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility, which is located in the Columbus module aboard the International Space Station. This facility is the first European commercial research center to operate aboard the ISS, and the D-Orbit team will use to test the booster’s safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment.
This experiment, which will not involve firing the actual propulsion system, will help ensure that the booster can operate safe and effectively in space. Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, while the team relies on the ICE Cubes facility’s dedicated control center to provide them with remote viewing opportunities from the ground.
The Fenix boosters are set to launch for the ISS by the end of next year and, if successful, D-Orbit will likely secure permission to test their propulsion system in space. And if all goes well, future generations of CubeSats – which have already made Low Earth Orbit (LEO) accessible to private companies and research institutes – will be capable of performing far more tasks in orbit.
For this year’s Space Exploration Masters, the ESA is partnering with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to address health and food. For the main challenge, participants will be tasked with coming up with applications that promote nutritious food and food security, both on- and 0ff-planet. Among other challenges, this year’s SEM will also be looking for ideas that make missions more sustainable and new ways to use future spacecraft.
For more information on this year’s Space Exploration Masters, check out the ESA website page.
Are you ready for a luxury hotel in space? We all knew it was coming, even though it seems impossibly futuristic. But this time it’s not just science fiction; somebody actually has a plan.
The space hotel will be called “Aurora Station” and the company behind it is Orion Span, a Silicon Valley and Houston-based firm. Orion Span aims to deliver the astronaut experience to people, by delivering the people into space. The catch?
“We developed Aurora Station to provide a turnkey destination in space. Upon launch, Aurora Station goes into service immediately, bringing travelers into space quicker and at a lower price point than ever seen before, while still providing an unforgettable experience” – Frank Bunger, CEO and founder of Orion Span.
First of all, a 12 day stay aboard Aurora Station for two people will cost $19 million US, or $9.5 million per person. Even so, you can’t just buy a ticket and hop on board. Guests must also sign up for three months of Orion Span Astronaut Certification (OSAC). Then they’ll be trained at a facility in Houston, Texas.
So once their cheque has cleared, and once they’re trained, what awaits guests on Aurora Station?
Aurora Station will orbit Earth at 320 km (200 m) and will make the trip around Earth every 90 minutes. If you do the math, that’s 16 sunrises and sunsets each day, and guests will enjoy this slideshow for 12 days. Other than this compressed schedule of 96 sunsets and 96 sunrises during their 12 day stay, guests will also be treated to stunning views of the Earth rolling by underneath them, thanks to the unprecedented number of windows Aurora Station will have.
Aurora Station is the brain-child of Orion Span’s CEO, Frank Bunger. “We developed Aurora Station to provide a turnkey destination in space. Upon launch, Aurora Station goes into service immediately, bringing travelers into space quicker and at a lower price point than ever seen before, while still providing an unforgettable experience,” said Bunger.
Guests won’t be alone on the station, of course. The space hotel will have room for 6 people in total, meaning 4 guests and 2 crew. (You didn’t think you’d be alone up there, did you?) Each pair of guests will still have some alone time though, in what Orion Span calls luxurious private suites for two.
There’s no doubt that staying on a space hotel for 12 days will be the experience of a lifetime, but still, 12 days is a long time. The space station itself will be 5600 square feet, with two suites that can be configured to four. Each suite will be about the size of a small bedroom. Once you’ve gotten used to seeing Earth below you, and you’re used to your suite, what will you do?
Well, there’ll be Wi-Fi of course. So if you’re the type of person who gets bored of orbiting the only planet that we know of that hosts life, and the only planet on which every human civilization has lived and died on, you can always surf the web or watch videos. Aurora Station will also have a virtual-reality holodeck, the cherry-on-top for this science-fiction-come-to- life space resort.
But apparently, boredom won’t be a problem. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger said, ““We talked to previous space tourists, they said 10 days aboard the space station was not enough.” Maybe the extra 2 days in space that Aurora Station guests will enjoy will be just the right amount.
As far as getting guests to the station, that will be up to other private space companies like SpaceX. SpaceX has plans to send tourists on trips around the Moon, and they have experience docking with the International Space Station, so they should be able to transport guests to and from a space hotel.
It doesn’t seem like there’s any shortage of customers. Aurora Station was introduced on April 5th 2018, and the first four months of reservations sold out within 72 hours, with each guest paying a deposit of $80,000 US.
There’s another side to Aurora Station, though. Other than just a nice get-away for people who can afford it, there’s a research aspect to it. Orion Span will offer Aurora Station as a platform for micro-gravity research on a pay-as-you-go basis. It will also lease capacity for in-situ manufacturing and 3D printing research.
But Aurora Station would hardly be in the news if it was only a research endeavour. What’s got people excited is the ability to visit space. And maybe to own some real estate there.
Orion Span is designing Aurora Station to be expandable. They can attach more stations to the original without disrupting anything. And this leads us to Orion Span’s next goal: space condos.
As it says on Orion Span’s website, “Like a city rising from the ground, this unique architecture enables us to build up Aurora Station in orbit dynamically – on the fly – and with no impact to the remainder of Aurora Station. As we add capacity, we will design in condos available for purchase.”
I think we all knew this would happen eventually. If you have the money, you can visit space, and even own a condo there.
You can zoom in and out, rotate the Earth and its satellites around. Pick any one object and discover more information about it. Or just leave it running and watch all the objects buzz around in real time. Humans have been busy launching a lot of stuff, and it’s only going to increase.
The simulation was made by James Yoder, an incoming Electrical and Computer Engineering freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, and it’s based on data supplied by Space Track, which is a service of the Joint Space Operations Center. They have a bunch of handy data feeds and APIs that you can use track orbital objects, but I’ve never seen anything as creative as this.
One of the technological hurdles of our age is to get people and equipment into space more cheaply. SpaceX gets a lot of the headlines around that, with their reusable rockets. And so does Blue Origin, to some degree. Now a small start-up affiliated with Purdue University is tackling the problem and making some headway.
The company is called Leo Aerospace LLC and they’re using balloons to lower the cost of putting micro-satellites into orbit, rather than reusable rockets. The balloons will be reusable, but the rockets won’t.
Leo Aerospace plans to revive a decades-old method of putting satellites into space. They’re using hot air balloons to lift the rocket and its micro-satellite payload 18 km (11 miles) above Earth. At that altitude, there’s 95% less atmosphere. This means much less drag on the rocket, which translates into smaller rockets with less fuel. This is an intriguing idea, if not for the unfortunate name.
The rockoons will be used to launch rockets into sub-orbital and orbital flights. Sub-orbitals are often used by researchers because it gives them access to zero gravity and to vacuum, both of which are necessary for some experiments. According to Leo Aerospace, there’s something revolutionary about their plans.
“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you.’” – Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s Head of Vehicle Development.
They intend on targeting micro-satellite developers. Micro-satellites are often hitch-hikers on larger payloads, which basically means they’re second-class customers. They have to wait until there’s room for their micro-satellite on a traditional rocket carrying a larger payload. This can mean long delays of several months, and that micro-satellite developers have to compromise when it comes to the orbits they can obtain. It can also make micro-satellite missions difficult to plan and execute efficiently and economically. Micro-satellites are becoming more and more capable, so having a launch system tailor-made for them could indeed be revolutionary.
“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you,’” said Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s head of vehicle development. “‘We will work with you exclusively to get you into orbit. You won’t have to worry about other payloads or getting dropped off in the wrong spot.’”
The flexibility of the rockoon system that Leo Aerospace is developing will be intriguing for micro-satellites. Rockoons will give micro-satellites the flexibility they need to operate efficiently. The launch can be scheduled and adapted to the needs of the individual satellite. “Our goal is to give people access to space. The only way to do that right now is to help people get their satellite into orbit. That’s where we want to leave our mark,” said Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace.
“Our goal is to give people access to space.” – Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace
The rockoon itself is a hybrid of a balloon and a rocket. The hybrid design takes advantage of physics by using the balloon to float the rocket 18 km high before launching the rocket. The rockoon has Leo Aerospace’s own patent-pending technology to control the pitch and angle of the launch, allowing for precision launches.
Rockoons were first used by the US Air Force back in the 1950s. But this next generation of rockoons, coupled with modern micro-satellites, will be much more capable than the 1950s technology.
Currently, Leo Aerospace is in the development and funding phase. They’ve obtained some funding from the National Science Foundation, and from a venture capital firm. They have about half of the $250,000 they need. They plan to conduct their first sub-orbital flight in 2020, and to launch their first micro-satellite into orbit in 2022. They intend to use existing approved launch sites.
Leo Aerospace was founded by five then-students at Purdue University. Leo started as a club, but the former students have turned it into a business. And that business seems to have a bright future. They conducted a customer discovery and market validation study and found a large demand for a better way to launch micro-satellites.
“We want to be part of the space market,” Murali said. “People are interested in space and creating technologies that not only can operate in space but also help people back on Earth. What we’re trying to do is help them get there.”
But they still need a better name than “rockoons.”