This Machine Could Help Robots Stick The Landing On Other Worlds

Mission planners really hate it when space robots land off course. We’re certainly improving the odds of success these days (remember Mars Curiosity’s seven minutes of terror?), but one space agency has a fancy simulator up its sleeve that could make landings even more precise.

Shown above, this software and hardware (tested at the European Space Agency) so impressed French aerospace center ONERA that officials recently gave the lead researcher an award for the work.

“If I’m a tourist in Paris, I might look for directions to famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame cathedral to help find my position on a map,” stated Jeff Delaune, the Ph.D. student performing the research.

“If the same process is repeated from space with enough surface landmarks seen by a camera, the eye of the spacecraft, it can then pretty accurately identify where it is by automatically comparing the visual information to maps we have onboard in the computer.”

ESA's SMART-1 mission took this collection of lunar pictures around the south pole, a possible landing target for future missions. Credit: ESA
ESA’s SMART-1 mission took this collection of lunar pictures around the south pole, a possible landing target for future missions. Credit: ESA

Because landmarks close-up can look really different from far away, this system has a method to try and get around that problem.

The so-called ‘Landing with Inertial and Optical Navigation’ (LION) system takes the real-time images generated by the spacecraft’s camera and compares it to maps from previous missions, as well as 3-D digital models of the surface.

LION can take into account the relative size of every point it sees, whether it’s a huge crater or a tiny boulder.

At ESA’s control hardware laboratory in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, officials tested the system with a high-res map of the moon.

Though this is just a test and there is still a ways to go before this system is space-ready, ESA said simulated positional accuracy was better than 164 feet at 1.86 miles in altitude (or 50 meters at three kilometers in altitude.)

Oh, and while it’s only been tested with simulated moon terrain so far, it’s possible the same system could help a robot land on an asteroid, or Mars, ESA adds.

No word on when the system will first hitch an interplanetary ride, but Delaune is working to apply the research to terrestrial matters such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

Check out more details on the testing on ESA’s website.

Source: ESA

With Russian Meteor Fresh In Everyone’s Memory, ESA Opens An Asteroid Monitoring Center

It’s been about three months since that infamous meteor broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia. In that time, there’s been a lot of conversation about how we can better protect ourselves against these space rocks with a potentially fatal (from humanity’s perspective) gravitational attraction to Earth.

This week, the European Space Agency officially inaugurated a “NEO Coordination Centre” that is intended to be asteroid warning central in the European Union. It will be the hub for early warnings on near-Earth objects (hence the ‘NEO’ in the name) under ESA’s space situational awareness program.

ESA estimates that of the 600,000 asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun, about 10,000 of them are NEOs. (They define NEOs as asteroids or comets with sizes of several feet up to several tens of miles.)

NASA, of course, is also gravely concerned about the threat NEOs present. Its administrator, Charles Bolden, talked about this at a Congressional hearing about asteroids in March.

Before delving into the threat, Bolden took a metaphorical deep breath to talk about the dozens of asteroids — a meter or larger — that slam into Earth’s atmosphere each year. Most of them burn up harmlessly, and further, 80 tons of dust-like material rain on Earth daily.

A notable meteor that did cause some damage took place about 100 years ago, in 1908, when an object broke up over an isolated area in Russia and flattened trees for miles. Bolden characterized that as a statistically one-in-a-thousand year event, but added that the “real catch” is this type of event could happen at any time.

NASA, however, is seeking out those that cause a threat. It is supposed to find 90 per cent of asteroids 140 meters or larger by 2020, and is making progress towards that goal. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk object was estimated at 17 to 20 meters.)

Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how to best monitor the threat? Bolden outlined a few ideas: crowdsourcing, coordinating with other federal agencies and making use of automatic feeds from different telescopes throughout the world (as NASA does right now.)

Bolden emphasized that none of the asteroids we have found is on a collision course with the Earth. Still, NASA and other science experts are not complacent.

In the same hearing, John Holdren — the president’s assistant on science and technology — recommended following a National Academy of Sciences report to spend upwards of $100 million a year on asteroid detection and characterization. To mitigate the threat, Holdren further recommended a visit to an asteroid by 2025, which would perhaps cost $2 billion.

‘Major Tim’ Peake to Make first British Long-duration Spaceflight

The name is Peake. Timothy Peake. And he’s set to follow in the (fictional) footsteps of fellow British citizen James Bond with a stay on a space station.

In 2015, Peake will be the first British citizen to live for six months on the International Space Station. He’ll be a part of the Expedition 46/47 crew. NASA hasn’t publicly named all of his seatmates yet, but expect a lot of excitement across the former Empire when Peake has his turn.

“This is another important mission for Europe and in particular a wonderful opportunity for European science, industry and education to benefit from microgravity research,” Peake said in a statement.

There have been a bevy of British astronauts before Peake, both as joint nationals within NASA and even for private spaceflights (remember Mark Shuttleworth‘s and Richard Garriott’s ‘vacations’ on station?) Also, it’s quite possible that even more British citizens will get into space before Peake does in 2015.

ESA astronaut Timothy Peake trains for the NEEMO 16 underwater mission. Credit: NASA
ESA astronaut Timothy Peake trains for the NEEMO 16 underwater mission. Credit: NASA

That’s not due to lack of qualifications on Peake’s part, though. He participated in the NEEMO 16 underwater mission and took part in a periodic underground cave expedition that ESA runs to simulate spaceflight, among other duties. Peake also used to be a helicopter pilot in the British Army; the media is already calling him “Major Tim” for that reason in homage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” song (most recently pwned by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.)

But 2015 also marks when the ground is expected to shift, so to speak, in commercial spaceflight. It’s expected that Britain’s Virgin Galactic will start regular suborbital runs around that year. (XCOR’s Lynx suborbital spacecraft also may start flights around the same time, perhaps with British citizens on board.)

British songstress Sarah Brightman previously announced she will make a much shorter visit to the space station in 2015. That hasn’t been fully confirmed yet — there aren’t many seats available on Soyuz spacecraft after the end of the shuttle program — but it’s possible she could make it up there.

Getting back to Peake, some important secondary news came out for the latest corps of European astronauts: all of them are expected to fly before the end of 2017, as ESA previously promised.

The European Space Agency's astronaut class of 2009 (left to right): Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Luca Parmitano, Timothy Peake. Credit: European Space Agency/S. Corvaja
The European Space Agency’s astronaut class of 2009 (left to right): Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Luca Parmitano, Timothy Peake. Credit: European Space Agency/S. Corvaja

The astronauts, who call themselves ‘The Shenanigans’, are already having an exciting month as Italian Luca Parmitano is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station May 28. (In a spaceflight first, he’s doing outreach with a 15-year-old while in orbit.)

Two other Shenanigans are assigned to spaceflights:  Alexander Gerst and Samantha Cristoforetti, who will make the journey around 2014.

It’ll be a little while before the last two astronauts, Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet, get confirmation of flight assignments, but it should be by announced by mid-2015, stated ESA’s director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain.

ESA has made numerous contributions to the station, racking up credits that the federation of countries can use towards astronaut spaceflights. Among them are the Columbus laboratory, the Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo ship and the cupola (a panoramic window with a history of awesome astronaut shots.)

The cameras mounted in the ISS's cupola could serve as the platform for the first-ever quantum optics experiment in space.
A view from the cupola in the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

“The value of Europe’s astronauts and the training given at the European astronaut center is reflected in the large number of mission assignments awarded to ESA astronauts,” stated Thomas Reiter, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and operations.

You can follow Peake’s training at his Twitter account, and he has promised to keep up his social media efforts in space.

“I certainly will be tweeting from space. A large part of what I want to achieve on this mission is to try to inspire a generation and encourage them to continue to support space flight and microgravity research,” Peake said in a press conference, as reported by The Guardian.

Milky Way’s Black Hole Munches On Supercooked Gas

It’s a simple menu, but smoking hot. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is sucking in ultra-hot molecular gas, as seen through the eyes of the Herschel space telescope.

“The biggest surprise was quite how hot the molecular gas in the innermost central region of the galaxy gets. At least some of it is around 1000ºC [1832º F], much hotter than typical interstellar clouds, which are usually only a few tens of degrees above the –273ºC [-460ºF] of absolute zero,” stated the European Space Agency.

Herschel, which is out of coolant and winding down its scientific operations, will continue producing results in the next few years as scientists crunch the results. The telescope has found a bunch of basic molecules in the Milky Way that include water vapour and carbon monoxide, and has been engaged in looking to learn more about the gas that surrounds the massive black hole at our galaxy’s center.

In a region called Sagittarius* (Sgr A*), this huge black hole — four million times the mass of the sun — is thankfully a safe distance from Earth. It’s 26,000 light years away from the solar system.

At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).
At left, ionized gas in the galaxy as seen in radio wavelengths; at right, the spectrum at the center seen by Herschel. Credit: Radio-wavelength image: National Radio Astronomy Observatory/Very Large Array (courtesy of C. Lang); spectrum: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE/J.R. Goicoechea et al. (2013).

Trouble is, there’s a heckuva lot of dust blocking our view to the center of the galaxy. Herschel got around that problem by taking pictures in the far-infrared, seeking heat signatures that can bely intense activity in and around the black hole.

“Herschel has resolved the far-infrared emission within just 1 light-year of the black hole, making it possible for the first time at these wavelengths to separate emission due to the central cavity from that of the surrounding dense molecular disc,” stated Javier Goicoechea of the Centro de Astrobiología, Spain, lead author of a paper reporting the results.

The science team supposes that there are strong shocks within the gas (which is magnetized) that help turn up the heat. The shocks could occur when gas clouds butt up against each other, or material shoots out Fast and Furious-style between stars and protostars (young stars.)

“The observations are also consistent with streamers of hot gas speeding towards Sgr A*, falling towards the very center of the galaxy,” stated Goicoechea. “Our galaxy’s black hole may be cooking its dinner right in front of Herschel’s eyes.”

Source: ESA

Experts Urge Removal of Space Debris From Orbit

Action is needed soon to remove the largest pieces of space debris from orbit before the amount of junk destroys massive amounts of critical space infrastructure, according to a panel at the Sixth European Conference on Space Debris.

“Whatever we are going to do, whatever we have to do, is an expensive solution,” said Heiner Klinkrad, head of the European Space Agency space debris office, in a panel this week that was broadcast on ESA’s website.

“We have to compare the costs to solving the problem in an early stage as opposed to losing the infrastructure in orbit in the not-too-distant future.”

The panel estimated that there is $1.3 billion (1 billion Euros) worth of space satellite infrastructure that must be protected. The 200 most crucial satellites identified by the space community have an insured value of $169.5 million (130 million Euros), Klinkrad added.

Critical infrastructure, though not specified exactly by the panel, can include communication satellites and military eyes in the sky. Also at risk is that largest of human outposts in space — the International Space Station.

A view of the International Space Station as seen by the last departing space shuttle crew, STS-135. Credit: NASA
A view of the International Space Station as seen by the last departing space shuttle crew, STS-135. Credit: NASA

The conference concluded that without further action — even without launching any new rockets — it’s quite possible there could be a runaway effect of collisions producing debris within a few decades. Even a tiny object could act like a hand grenade in orbit if it smashes into a satellite, Klinkrad said.

A recent example of the problem: a piece of Chinese space debris smashed into a Russian satellite in March. It didn’t destroy the satellite, but altered its orbit.

To mitigate the situation, representatives suggested removing 5 to 10 large pieces of debris every year. They added they are uncertain about how soon a large problem would occur, but noted that the number of small objects is definitively increasing annually according to measurements done by the Walter Baade 6.5-meter Magellan Telescope.

“[It’s] something we haven’t know until now. We have been suspecting it is the case … this is a new result which is very important.”

While highlighting the risk, the European representatives of the panel added they are not standing idly by. Already, there are regulatory changes that could slow the problem for future launches — although there still will be cleanup to do from five past decades of space exploration.

Artist's conception of DEOS (German orbital servicing mission). Credit: Astrium
Artist’s conception of DEOS (German orbital servicing mission). Credit: Astrium

A few of the points brought up:

– German officials are working on an in-orbit satellite servicing solution called DEOS. “The DEOS project will for the first time demonstrate technologies for the controlled in-orbit disposal of a defective satellite,” Astrium, the prime contractor for the definition phase, wrote in a press release in 2012. “In addition, DEOS will practice how to complete maintenance tasks – refuelling in particular – that extend the service life of satellites.”

– France’s Parliament passed the Space Operations Act in December 2010. “Its chief objective is to ensure that the technical risks associated with space activities are properly mitigated, without compromising private contractors’ competitiveness,” French space agency CNES wrote on its website. “The government provides a financial guarantee to compensate damages to people, property or the environment.”

– A United Nations subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is working on space sustainability guidelines that will include space debris and space operations practices. More details should be released in June, although Claudio Portelli (a representative from Italy’s space agency) warned he did not expect any debris removal proposals to emerge from this work.

For more technical details on the space debris problem, check out the webcast of the ESA space debris conference.