SpaceX Test Fires SuperDraco Abort Engines Critical To Astronaut Launch Safety

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has test fired a prototype of its new SuperDraco engine that will be critical to saving the lives of astronauts flying aboard a manned Dragon spacecraft soaring to orbit in the event of an in-flight emergency.

The successful full-duration, full-thrust firing of the new SuperDraco engine prototype was completed at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco is a key component of the launch abort system of the Dragon spacecraft that must fire in a split second to insure crew safety during launch and the entire ascent to orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft is SpaceX’s entry into NASA’s commercial crew development program – known as CCDEV2 – that seeks to develop a commercial ‘space taxi’ to launch human crews to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The engine fired for 5 seconds during the test, which is the same length of time the engines need to burn during an actual emergency abort to safely thrust the astronauts away.

Watch the SpaceX SuperDraco Engine Test Video:

Nine months ago NASA awarded $75 million to SpaceX to design and test the Dragon’s launch abort system . The SuperDraco firing was the ninth of ten milestones that are to be completed by SpaceX by around May 2012 and that were stipulated and funded by a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“SpaceX and all our industry partners are being extremely innovative in their approaches to developing commercial transportation capabilities,” said Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango in a NASA statement. “We are happy that our investment in SpaceX was met with success in the firing of its new engine.”

Dragon will launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket, also developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX test-fires its SuperDraco engine that will eventually power the manned Dragon spacecrafts launch escape system critical for Astronaut safety during launch to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

“Eight SuperDracos will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to quickly carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive officer and chief technology officer in a statement. “Those engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.”

“Crews will have the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch because the launch abort engines are integrated into the side walls of the vehicle,” Musk said. “With eight SuperDracos, if any one engine fails the abort still can be carried out successfully.”

SuperDraco engines will power the launch escape system of SpaceX’s Dragon. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of four commercial firms working to develop a new human rated spacecraft with NASA funding. The other firms vying for a commercial crew contract are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” says Musk. “These engines will power a revolutionarylaunch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The privately developed space taxi’s will eventually revive the capability to ferry American astronauts to and from the ISS that was totally lost when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were forcibly retired before a replacement crew vehicle was ready to launch.

Because the US Congress slashed NASA’s commercial crew development funding by more than 50% -over $400 million – the first launch of a commercial space taxi is likely to be delayed several more years to about 2017. Until that time, all American astronauts must hitch a ride to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

This week the Russian manned space program suffered the latest in a string of failures when when technicians performing a crucial test mistakenly over pressurized and damaged the descent module of the next manned Soyuz vehicle set to fly to the ISS in late March, thereby forcing about a 45 day delay to the launch of the next manned Soyuz from Kazakhstan.

SpaceX Delays Upcoming 1st Dragon Launch to ISS

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The first test launch of a commercially built spacecraft to the International Space Station has been delayed by its builder, Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, in order to carry out additional testing to ensure that the vehicle is fully ready for the high stakes Earth orbital mission.

SpaceX and NASA had been working towards a Feb. 7 launch date of the company’s Dragon spacecraft and announced the postponement in a statement today (Jan. 16).

A new target launch date has not been set and it is not known whether the delay amounts to a few days, weeks or more. The critical test flight has already been rescheduled several times and was originally planned for 2011.

The unmanned Dragon is a privately developed cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS and partially replace the transport to orbit capabilities that were fully lost following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

“In preparation for the upcoming launch, SpaceX continues to conduct extensive testing and analysis, said SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham in the statement.

“We [SpaceX] believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of this mission.”

“We are now working with NASA to establish a new target launch date, but note that we will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready,” said Grantham.

This SpaceX Dragon will launch to the ISS sometime in 2012 on COTS2/3 mission. Protective fairings are installed over folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX Cape Canaveral launch site.

Dragon’s purpose is to ship food, water, provisions, equipment and science experiments to the ISS.

The demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – will be the premiere test flight in NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

The Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX and, if all goes well, conduct the first ever rendezvous and docking of a privately built spacecraft with the 1 million pound orbiting outpost.

After closely approaching the ISS, the crew will grapple Dragon with the station’s robotic arm and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a recent televised interview from space.

An astronaut operating the ISS robotic arm will grab Dragon and position it at a berthing port at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

Since the demonstration mission also involves many other first time milestones for the Dragon such as the first flight with integrated solar arrays and the first ISS rendezvous, extra special care and extensive preparatory activities are prudent and absolutely mandatory.

NASA’s international partners, including Russia, must be consulted and agree that all engineering and safety requirements, issues and questions related to the docking by new space vehicles such as Dragon have been fully addressed and answered.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate recently stated that the launch date depends on completing all the work necessary to ensure safety and success, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it.”

“As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

“A successful mission will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery to the international orbiting laboratory,” said Gerstenmaier.

SpaceX is also working on a modified version of the spacecraft, dubbed DragonRider, that could launch astronaut crews to the ISS in perhaps 3 to 5 years depending on the amount of NASA funding available, says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk

Read Ken’s recent features about the ISS and SpaceX/Dragon here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

100 Year Starship Project Has a New Leader

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You may have heard by now about the 100 Year Starship project, a new research initiative to develop the technology required to send a manned mission to another star. The project is jointly sponsored by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It will take that long just to make such a trip feasible, hence the name. So we’re a long ways off from naming any crew members or a starship captain, but the project itself does have a new leader, a former astronaut.

Mae Jemison, a former Space Shuttle astronaut, has been appointed the position by DARPA. She was also the first African-American woman to go into space, in 1992. Her own non-profit educational organization, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (in honor of her late mother) was chosen to work with DARPA, receiving a $500,000 contract. That funding is just seed money, to start the process of developing the framework needed for such an ambitious undertaking. The focus at this point is to create a foundation that can last long enough to research the technology required, rather than the actual government-funded building of the spacecraft.

As stated by the proposal, the goal is to “develop a viable and sustainable non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel viable.”

From the project’s mission statement:

The 100 Year Starship™ (100YSS™) study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.

The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.
DARPA contends that the useful, unanticipated consequences of such research will have benefit to the Department of Defense and to NASA, as well as the private and commercial sector.
This endeavor will require an understanding of questions such as: how do organizations evolve and maintain focus and momentum for 100 years or more; what models have supported long-term technology development; what resources and financial structures have initiated and sustained prior settlements of “new worlds?”

With today’s technology, it would take about 100,000 years to reach just the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. That time would hopefully be reduced significantly with the development of new, faster propulsion methods.

The dream of travelling to the stars may still be a long ways off in the future before becoming reality, but we are getting closer. Ad astra!

More information about the 100 Year Starship project is here.

The Next Generation of Robotic Space Explorers – Powered by Bacteria!

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As technology advances, a lot of the gadgets and other things we use keep getting smaller, lighter and thinner. Now that trend may soon be taken to another extreme – small robotic space explorers which in turn use a miniscule power source – bacteria.

It may sound like science fiction, or just odd even, but that is the idea behind a new proposal by NASA for an alternative to the solar and nuclear powered missions common today. The bacteria could provide a long-lived energy source which could sustain a tiny robotic probe; the amount of energy generated would also be small however, not enough to power larger probes like the Mars rovers for example. The microbial fuels cells could last a long time however, as long as the bacteria themselves had an adequate food supply.

The microbe being considered for the project is Geobacter sulfurreducens, which does not require oxygen for its survival.

Electron microscope image of Geobacter sulfurreducens, the microbe to be used in the new fuel system. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory

A research team at the Naval Research Laboratory would like to have a working prototype of just such a robot within the next ten years that would weigh about 2 pounds (1 kilogram). There are technological hurdles, as with any new mission concept, to be overcome which will take several years.

Another major concern however, is the problem of contamination. Planetary probes, especially ones going to Mars, have been sterilized before launch according to a long-standing protocol, to minimize the introduction of earthly bacteria to the alien environments. So what would happen if a bacteria-powered probe was sent? It seems counter-productive then to deliberately send microbes which not only hitch a ride but are actually the fuel.

According to Gregory Scott at NSL: “There are planetary protection concerns, as well as concerns about protecting the microbes themselves from radiation. Sometime down the road we also have to consider whether the microbes we’re looking at are most effective for radiation environments or extreme temperatures.”

Any bacteria-based fuel system would have to take the contamination issue into account and be developed so as to try to minimize the chances of accidental leakage, especially in a place like Mars, where such organisms would have a decent chance at survival.

The concept is an innovative and exciting one, if the various technological and environmental concerns can be addressed. If so, our tiny friends may help to open a new chapter in space exploration.

Scott continues: “As we move forward in the utilisation of MFCs as an energy generation method, this research begins to lay the groundwork for low powered electronics with a long-term potential for space and robotic applications,” says Scott. Microbial fuel cells coupled with extremely low-power electronics and a low energy requirement for mobility addresses gaps in power technology applicable to all robotic systems, especially planetary robotics.”

Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar

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The Dragon has grown its mighty wings

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has gotten its wings and is set to soar to the International Space Station (ISS) in about a month. NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting a liftoff on Feb. 7 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Dragon is a commercially developed unmanned cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA. The Dragon spacecraft will launch atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies.

Dragon’s solar array panels being installed on Dragon’s trunk at the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral,FL.

The Feb. 7 demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – represents the first test of NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

Following the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle after Atlantis final flight in July 2011, NASA has no choice but to rely on private companies to loft virtually all of the US share of supplies and equipment to the ISS.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the first Dragon mission actually tasked to dock to the ISS and is also the first time that the Dragon will fly with deployable solar arrays. The twin arrays are the primary power source for the Dragon. They will be deployed a few minutes after launch, following Dragon separation from the Falcon 9 second stage.

The solar arrays can generate up to 5000 watts of power on a long term basis to run the sensors and communications systems, drive the heating and cooling systems and recharge the battery pack.

SpaceX designed, developed and manufactured the solar arrays in house with their own team of engineers. As with all space hardware, the arrays have been rigorously tested for hundreds of hours under the utterly harsh conditions that simulate the unforgiving environment of outer space, including thermal, vacuum, vibration, structural and electrical testing.

SpaceX engineers conducting an early solar panel test. Hundreds of flood lamps simulate the unfiltered light of the sun. Photo: Roger Gilbertson/ SpaceX

The two arrays were then shipped to Florida and have been attached to the side of the Dragon’s bottom trunk at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch processing facilities. They are housed behind protective shielding until commanded to deploy in flight.


Video Caption: SpaceX testing of the Dragon solar arrays. Credit: SpaceX

I’ve toured the SpaceX facilities several times and seen the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule launching on Feb. 7. The young age and enthusiasm of the employees is impressive and quite evident.

NASA recently granted SpaceX the permission to combine the next two COTS demonstration flights into one mission and dock the Dragon at the ISS if all the rendezvous practice activities in the vicinity of the ISS are completed flawlessly.

Dragon with the protective fairings installed over the folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX

The ISS crew is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Dragon, for whch they have long trained.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a televised interview from on board the ISS earlier this week.

The ISS crew will grapple the Dragon with the station’s robotic arm when it comes within reach and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“From the standpoint of a pilot it is a fun, interesting, very dynamic activity and we are very much looking forward to it,” Burbank said. “It is the start of a new era, having commercial vehicles that come to Station.”

Burbank is a US astronaut and captured stunning images of Comet Lovejoy from the ISS just before Christmas, collected here.

Read recent features about the ISS and commercial spaceflight by Ken Kremer here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

Jan 11: Free Lecture by Ken at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA at 8 PM for the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. Topic: Mars & Vesta in 3 D – Plus Search for Life & GRAIL

NASA Channels “The Force” With Smart SPHERES

[/caption]In an interesting case of science fiction becoming a reality, NASA has been testing their SPHERES project over the past few years. The SPHERES project (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) involves spherical satellites about the size of a bowling ball. Used inside the International Space Station, the satellites are used to test autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers. Each individual satellite features its own power, propulsion, computers and navigational support systems.

The SPHERES project is the brainchild of David Miller (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Miller was inspired by the floating remote “droid” that Luke Skywalker used to help hone his lightsaber skills in Star Wars. Since 2006, a set of five SPHERES satellites, built by Miller and his students have been onboard the International Space Station.

Since lightsabers are most likely prohibited onboard the ISS, what practical use have these “droids” been to space station crews?


The first SPHERES satellite was tested during Expedition 8 and Expedition 13, with a second unit delivered to the ISS by STS-121, and a third delivered by STS-116. The crew of ISS Expedition 14 tested a configuration using three of the SPHERES satellites. Since their arrival, over 25 experiments have been performed using SPHERES. Until recently, the tests used pre-programmed algorithms to perform specific functions.

“The space station is just the first step to using remotely controlled robots to support human exploration,” said Chris Moore, program executive in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Building on our experience in controlling robots on station, one day we’ll be able to apply what we’ve learned and have humans and robots working together everywhere from Earth orbit, to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.”

International Space Station researcher Mike Fossum, commander of Expedition 29, puts one of the Smart SPHERES through its paces. Image Credit: NASA
In November, the SPHERES satellites were upgraded with “off-the-shelf” smartphones by using an “expansion port” Miller’s team designed into each satellite.

“Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots,” said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

Wheeler added, “By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control.”

In order to make the smartphones safer to use onboard the station, the cellular communications chips were removed, and the lithium-ion battery was replaced with AA alkaline batteries.

By testing the SPHERES satellites, NASA can demonstrate how the smart SPHERES can operate as remotely operated assistants for astronauts in space. NASA plans additional tests in which the compact assistants will perform interior station surveys and inspections, along with capturing images and video using the smartphone camera. Additional goals for the mission include the simulation of free-flight excursions, and possibly other, more challenging tasks.

“The tests that we are conducting with Smart SPHERES will help NASA make better use of robots as assistants to and versatile support for human explorers — in Earth orbit or on long missions to other worlds and new destinations,” said Terry Fong, project manager of the Human Exploration Telerobotics project and Director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

You can view a video of the SPHERES satellites in action at: http://ti.arc.nasa.gov/m/groups/intelligent-robotics/smartspheres_test_2011-11-01-4x.avi (Sorry, no lightsaber action.).

If you’d like to learn more about NASA’s SPHERES program, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/SPHERES.html

Source: NASA Telerobotics News

NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

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Make or break time for NASA’s big bet on commercial space transportation is at last in view. NASA has announced Feb. 7, 2012 as the launch target date for the first attempt by SpaceX to dock the firms Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), pending final safety reviews.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the second of the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights to be conducted by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a contact with NASA.

Several months ago SpaceX had requested that the objectives of the next two COTS flights, known as COTS 2 and COTS 3, be merged into one very ambitious flight and allow the Dragon vehicle to actually dock at the ISS instead of only accomplishing a rendezvous test on the next flight and waiting until the third COTS flight to carry out the final docking attempt.

The Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about one week and astronauts will unload the cargo. Then the spacecraft will depart, re-enter the Earth atmosphere splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

“The cargo is hundreds of pounds of astronaut provisions,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS
Astronauts can reach it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle following the final fight with orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the US has had absolutely zero capability to launch either supplies or human crews to the massive orbiting complex, which is composed primarily of US components.

In a NASA statement, Gerstenmaier added, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

SpaceX lofted the COTS 1 flight a year ago on Dec. 8, 2010 and became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX assembled both the Falcon 9 booster rocket and the Dragon cargo vessel from US built components.

An astronaut operating the robot arm aboard the ISS will move Dragon into position at the berthing port where it will be locked in place at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

The new demonstration flight is now dubbed COTS 2/3. The objectives include Dragon safely demonstrating all COTS 2 operations in the vicinity of the ISS by conducting check out procedures and a series of rendezvous operations at a distance of approximately two miles and the ability to abort if necessary.

The European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo vessels carried out a similar series of tests during their respective first flights.

After accomplishing all the rendezvous tasks, Dragon will then receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, gradually approaching the ISS from below to within a few meters.

Specially trained astronauts working in the Cupola will then reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into place onto the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. The operations are expected to take several hours.

The COTS Demo 2/3 Dragon spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. Photo: SpaceX

If successful, the Feb. 7 SpaceX demonstration flight will become the first commercial mission to visit the ISS and vindicate the advocates of commercial space transportation who contend that allowing private companies to compete for contracts to provide cargo delivery services to the ISS will result in dramatically reduced costs and risks and increased efficiencies.

The new commercial paradigm would also thereby allow NASA to focus more of its scarce funds on research activities to come up with the next breakthroughs enabling bolder missions to deep space.

If the flight fails, then the future of the ISS could be in serious jeopardy in the medium to long term because there would not be sufficient alternative launch cargo capacity to maintain the research and living requirements for a full crew complement of six residents aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Feb. 7 represents nothing less than ‘High Stakes on the High Frontier’.

NASA is all about bold objectives in space exploration in both the manned and robotic arenas – and that’s perfectly represented by the agencies huge gamble with the commercial cargo and commercial crew initiatives.

Space Junk Problem? Just Fire a Laser!

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Imagine yourself as an astronaut performing scientific experiments and crowd-stunning aerobatics. Suddenly, ear-stinging, blaring alarms go off. Mission Control radios that all space station personnel should evacuate to the rescue vehicles because a piece of deadly space debris is headed your way.

This scenario isn’t science fiction. In June of 2011, Universe Today reported that “six crew members on board the International Space Station were told to take shelter in…two Russian Soyuz spacecraft.” As more satellites reach the end of their operational lives, there will be more space junk emergencies in space and on the ground, undoubtedly with less pleasant results. Our young space faring society has been lucky so far: the ISS has been able to steer clear of space junk, and falling, uncontrolled satellites have thankfully fallen into the oceans. But one day our luck will run out.

There is hope, however. A new paper titled Removing Orbital Debris with Lasers published on arXiv proposes using a high-power pulsed laser system from Earth to create plasma jets on pieces of space debris, slowing them slightly, causing them to re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere or fall into the ocean.

Claude Phipps and his team from a high-tech company named Photonic Associates outlined their method, called Laser Orbital Debris Removal (LODR) which uses 15-year-old laser technology which is now readily available.

The team recognized that “thirty five years of poor housekeeping in space have created several hundred thousand pieces of space debris larger than one cm in the …low Earth orbit (LEO) band.” These may not seem like large objects, but with the energy density of dynamite, even a large paint chip can cause major damage.

The photo shows the "energy flash" when a projectile launched at speeds up to 17,000 miles an hour impacts a solid surface at the Hypervelocity Ballistic Range at NASA's Ames Research Center. This test is used to simulate what happens when a piece of orbital debris hits a spacecraft in orbit. Credit - NASA

Removing debris is an urgent task because the amount of debris currently in space poses “runaway collisional cascading,” with objects colliding with each other, creating even more pieces of debris.

There are other solutions besides creating a plasma jet, but they tend to be both less effective and more expensive.  A laser could be used to grind down an object into dust, but this would create an uncontrollable molten spray, making the problem worse.

Grappling the object or attaching a de-orbiting kit can both be effective. Unfortunately, they require a lot of fuel due to the need to accelerate to catch the object, which leads to more a more costly solution – about $27 million per object. Finally, there is the nuclear option of releasing a gas, mist, or aerogel to slow down objects, but this would affect both operational and non-operational spacecraft.

In their paper, Phipps and his team say that removing space junk by creating a jet of plasma of a few seconds in length with a laser is the best solution, costing only $1 million per big object removed and a few thousand for small objects. Furthermore, smaller objects can be de-orbited in merely one orbit, and a constellation of  “167 different objects can be addressed (hit with a laser) in one day, giving 4.9 years to re-enter” the atmosphere.

All 167 objects must carefully be tracked as to not change their paths of doom for the worse; however, it is possible to use the system to adjust orbits of space junk. That being said, current levels of space debris tracking are not adequate to implement LODR, but there is a dual benefit of easier removal and better avoidance with improve debris tracking. Better tracking will then allow for better control of the re-entry point and orbit modification with LODR, if necessary.

How can a light-push from a laser modify an orbit? While the laser doesn’t blast the debris out of the air, it is still effective because of the nature of orbital mechanics.

Imagine a cubesat that needs to be disposed of in a low altitude, perfectly circular orbit. The tap from a high powered laser and the plasma jet generated would push the cubesat out, farther away from Earth (higher in altitude) and into a more elliptical orbit.

This might seem like a horrible idea during the time the cubesat spends at a higher altitude, but as it comes half circle, it clips the atmosphere at a lower altitude since the ellipse is warped due adjustments by the laser. Since a low altitude corresponds to more drag, the cubesat slows down and locks into a lower orbit. This is why highly elliptical orbits are called transfer orbits, as they change lanes on the highway of space. Now, with the transfer orbit complete, the cubesat is slowed enough so that its orbit can no longer be achieved by the cubesat. The cubesat then falls out of the sky.

A picture showing the accelerations needed to transfer orbits, the laser provides acceleration and the atmosphere provides deceleration. Credit - Wikimedia Commons, AndrewBuck
The meat of the research for LODR deals with the atmosphere as the laser can become unfocused if the atmospheric turbulence is not addressed. LODR is complicated because the turbulence in the atmosphere causes distortions like those you see above a road on a hot summer’s day or like those you see when looking through a glass bottle. This complication is in addition to the aiming ahead needed to hit a target, just like the aiming ahead needed to hit a running player in dodgeball.

There are two ways to cancel turbulence.  First, one can shine a laser at a known spot in the atmosphere, exciting the sodium atoms at that location. Knowing the height of this dot in the sky, the system can then flex the reflecting mirror to bring the dot into focus moment-by-moment. It can then fire freely.

A second way involves the use of a Phase Conjugate (PC) mirror, otherwise known as a retroflector, which could automatically undo turbulence by sending light who’s phase variation has been reversed. That is to say it will send back an “oppositely distorted” laser beam whose distortion is un-done by the atmosphere creating a sharp laser beam.

An illustration of the distortion caused by both a phase conjugate mirror and a normal mirror. While both mirrors receive distorted images, the PC mirror results in a clear picture whereas a normal mirror is doubly distorted when passing through disrupting medium. Credit - Wikimedia Commons, Danh
LODR is not a silver bullet. Wired reports that “the main criticism of such a project would come from the international community, which might fear that a powerful enough laser could be used for military purposes such as hitting enemy satellites.” Wired then conducted an interview with Kessler; NASA’s former Senior Scientist for Orbital Debris Research who said, because of the politics involved, “any laser proposal is dead on arrival.” However, Phipps asserts to Wired that “If we get the right international cooperation, no one would believe the laser to be a weapon in sheep’s clothing.”

There are still unaddressed problems, as Kessler points out, hitting the wrong part of a space object would have disastrous results. “You might hit the wrong part of a satellite or could vaporize enough to cause it to explode.” In spite of that, careful study of the object could avoid any danger.

NASA Issues Report On Commercial Crew as SpaceX’s CEO Testifies About SpaceX’s Progress

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NASA has recently posted the latest update as to how the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program is doing in terms of meeting milestones laid out at the program’s inception. According to the third status report that was released by NASA, CCDev2’s partners continue to meet these objectives. The space agency has worked to provide regular updates about the program’s progress.

“There is a lot happening in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs and we want to make sure the public and our stakeholders are informed about the progress industry is making,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development. “It’s exciting to see these spaceflight concepts move forward.”

One of the primary objectives of the Commercial Crew Development program is to cut down the length of time that NASA is forced to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Reports on the progress of commercial crew are issued on a bi-monthly basis. The reports are directed toward the primary stakeholder of this program, the U.S. taxpayer. NASA has invested both financial and technical assets in an effort to accelerate the development of commercial access to orbit.

This report came out at the same time as Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) CEO, Elon Musk, testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding NASA’s commercial crewed program.

Elon Musk testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding his company's efforts to provide commercial access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX itself has been awarded $75 million under the CCDev program to develop a launch abort system, known as “DragonRider” that would enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts. SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS contract with NASA. Under the COTS contract, SpaceX must fly three demonstration flights as well as nine cargo delivery flights to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX is currently working to combine the second and third demonstration flights into one mission, currently scheduled to fly at the end of this year.

During Musk’s comments to the House, he highlighted his company’s efforts to make space travel more accessible.

“America’s endeavors in space are truly inspirational. I deeply believe that human spaceflight is one of the great achievements of humankind. Although NASA only sent a handful of people to the moon, it felt like we all went,” Musk said in a written statement. “We vicariously shared in the adventure and achievement. My goal, and the goal of SpaceX, is to help create the technology so that more can share in that great adventure.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle is currently being readied for a liftoff date later this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

To date, SpaceX is the only company to have demonstrated the capacity of their launch vehicle as well as a spacecraft. The company launched the first of its Dragon spacecraft atop of its Falcon 9 rocket this past December. The Dragon completed two orbits successfully before splashing down safely off the coast of California.

NASA is relying on companies like SpaceX to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities that could one day send astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). It is hoped that CCDev2 will help reduce U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for access to the ISS. Allowing commercial companies to take over the responsibility of sending crews to the ISS might also allow the space agency focus on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in four decades.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft recently arrived at the firm's hangar located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Here There Be Dragons: SpaceX’s Spacecraft Arrives at Launch Complex 40

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) welcomed a new guest to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on Sunday – the next Dragon spacecraft that is set to launch later this year. Members of the media were invited to a photo opportunity to chronicle the Dragon spacecraft’s arrival which had been delayed a day due to issues with travel permits.

The Dragon that arrived on Sunday is destined to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that a private firm docks with the space station. The COTS Demo 2 Dragon was shipped from SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX's next Dragon spacecraft, the one set to fly to the International Space Station, was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 on Sunday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket, with its Dragon spacecraft payload, is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-40 on Dec. 19. If all goes as it is currently planned the Dragon will maneuver along side of the orbiting laboratory where the space station’s robot Canadarm 2 will grapple the unmanned spacecraft it and dock it with the station.

“When it comes to the launch day, NASA will determine that, we’re pushing to launch on Dec. 19, but the final “go” date is set by NASA and the range,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block. “We are currently working to conduct a wet dress rehearsal on November 21st.”

The Dragon spacecraft that is bound for the ISS will ride this Falcon 9 rocket to orbit. The launch date is tentatively set for Dec. 19. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX recently passed a Preliminary Draft Review (PDR) of the Dragon’s Launch Abort System (LAS). This system, which pulls astronauts and their spacecraft to safety in case of some problem with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, is unlike other systems of its type. Normal abort systems are essentially small rockets affixed to the top of the spacecraft (which is normally on top of the rocket). Not so with SpaceX’s design, dubbed DragonRider – it will be built into the walls of the spacecraft.

The reason for the difference in the abort system’s design is twofold. First, it will drive the costs down (Dragon is being developed as a reusable spacecraft) -whereas traditional abort systems are not capable of being reused. Secondly the system could one day be used as a potential means of landing spacecraft on other terrestrial worlds, such as the planet Mars.

SpaceX has been working with NASA to get the Dragon spacecraft ready for its historic mission. This will mark the first time that many of the systems have been used on an actual mission. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

This will mark the second demonstration flight that SpaceX will have flown to accomplish the objectives laid out in the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services or COTS contract. The $1.6 billion contract is an effort to ensure that needed cargo is delivered to the station safely and in a timely fashion.

SpaceX so far has launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets – both in 2010. The first flight occurred on June 4, 2010 with the second being launched on Dec. 8, 2010. It was on this second flight that SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely recover it after it had successfully orbited the Earth twice. Before this only nations were capable of achieving this feat.

“This is very exciting, our last launch was about a year ago, so to have a fully-operational Dragon up-and-ready to make a historic docking to the International Space Station it’s terrifically exciting.” Block said.

SpaceX is working toward expanding the role of not only the Falcon 9 rocket - but the Dragon spacecraft as well. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com