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