Small Spacecraft Ejected from Space Station Airlock Will Provide Same-Day, On-Demand Parcel Delivery

Getting to the International Space Station is no easy task. Generally speaking, it involves loading up a space capsule with several tons of cargo and then expending millions of liters of fuel to get it into orbit. This process is time consuming and very expensive. And what if astronauts want to send some things back? Currently, their only option for return capability is provided by the same cargo capsules that are sent up to them.

Which means that the only way the ISS can send things back to Earth is for us to spend several million dollars sending a return vehicle up to them. Luckily, this is about to change, thanks to a project known as the Terrestrial Return Vehicle (TRV).

The TRV represents a collaborative effort between NASA and CASIS, the non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which was recently endowed  with the responsibility of making sure that we make good use of the US laboratory aboard the ISS. Towards this end, they have contracted with Intuitive Machines – a Texas-based private space firm – to create a return vehicle that will enable the on-demand, rapid return of experiments from the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory.

“I believe with this new ‘on demand’ delivery capability for returning scientific samples to earth we will extend the viability of the ISS National Laboratory as a research platform for commercial benefit,” Steve Altemus, the president of Intuitive Machines, told Universe Today via email. “The principle investigators and scientists engaged in microgravity research in space can now begin to imagine new and different experiments and methodologies enabled by returning samples on a nearly daily basis and landing them precisely and gently on the Earth.”

The proposed TRV is a small, wingless capsule that can be loaded up with samples and ejected from the airlock in the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), guaranteeing delivery back to Earth in under 24 hours. From the outside, the design looks a little like the Space Shuttle, or the Boeing X-37B space plane. Minus the stubby wings, of course.

Credit: NASA
The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

For the ISS crews, having these vehicles on hand will be a major boon for research, allowing for the delivery of critical or perishable samples to Earth laboratories in a timely manner. A number of these TRV’s will be shipped to the ISS – presumably as part of a normal cargo run using a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Once there, the process for using them to make deliveries will be quite straightforward. First, astronauts will load them with the scientific samples they intend to send home. Then, they will push them out the airlock and shunt them out into space using the Station’s Japanese-made robotic arm.

The TRV will then return to Earth much like any other spacecraft, descending through the atmosphere and eventually deploying a parachute to slow it down from supersonic speeds. Another larger parachute will deploy once it’s closer to the ground and bring it safely down to a landing site in Utah.

This return trip will take six hours, and since the ISS orbits the Earth about 15 times a day, the total delivery time should always be less than 24 hours. This will be especially useful considering that a number of scientific experiments take place on the International Space Station, mainly because the zero-gravity environment is more ideal for growing cell cultures in three dimensions.

Getting a TRV from the Space Station back to Earth. Credit: Intuitive Machines (some images courtesy of NASA)
Getting a TRV from the Space Station back to Earth. Credit: Intuitive Machines (some images courtesy of NASA)

“The International Space Station, with its unique microgravity laboratories and crew, enables research over a wide range of disciplines from physics through biology,” said Dr. David Wolf, a research scientist and former astronaut. “This small payload return capability will provide controlled conditions and flexible choices for timely sample analysis. The scientific team will be able to much more efficiently adjust experimental parameters in response to results, exploit unique results, and correct problems encountered.”

In short, if astronauts are busy testing techniques for bioprinting organs or developing new types of pharmaceuticals, they would certainly prefer to send the samples produced straight back to Earth rather than being forced to wait weeks for a cargo ship to arrive.

However, beyond facilitating the research efforts of astronauts, Intuitive Machines sees the TRV as a means of enabling new and exciting research aboard the ISS National Laboratory, as well as opening the door for commercial ventures in space.

Currently, Intuitive Machines plans to provide its TRV technology to a wide range of customers – including scientific, academic, commercial, and government interests. It is their hope that the new same-day capability will enable increased utilization of the ISS as a national laboratory, and improve the commercialization opportunities of experiments for terrestrial benefit.

The first batch of TRVs is scheduled to be sent up to the ISS in 2016. At first, they will be used strictly to return scientific samples – but apparently, a version that would be capable of returning live rodents is also in the works.

Further Reading: Intuitive Machines

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