Scientists at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) have devised an ingenious way to combat the growing problem of space debris. The team fitted a drag sail to a Long March 2 rocket and successfully launched it in July this year. Rocket launches often leave discarded booster stages in low-earth orbit, adding to the pollution of near-earth space. The pilot testing for the sail came as a surprise to many space agencies when, a day after the rocket’s launch, the 25 square meters deorbiting sail was unfolded.
For over thirty years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been in continuous operation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and revealing never-before-seen aspects of the Universe. In addition to capturing breathtaking images of our Solar System and discovering extrasolar planets, Hubble also probed the deepest reaches of time and space, causing astrophysicists to revise many of their previously-held theories about the cosmos.
Unfortunately, Hubble may finally be reaching the end of its lifespan. In recent weeks, NASA identified a problem with the telescope’s payload computer which suddenly stopped working. This caused Hubble and all of its scientific instruments to go into safe mode and shut down. After many days of tests and checks, technicians at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have yet to identify the root of the problem and get Hubble back online.
Like all other technologies, satellite technology has grown in leaps and bounds in the past couple decades. Satellites can monitor Earth in increasingly high resolutions, aiding everything from storm forecasting, to climate change monitoring, to predicting crop harvests. But there’s one thing still holding satellites back: altitude.
Since the end of the Apollo-era, one of the main goals of NASA, Roscosmos and other space agencies has been the development of technologies that will enable a long-term human presence in space. These technologies will also help when it comes time to mount renewed missions to the Moon, to Mars, and other locations in the Solar System. Over the past few decades, these efforts have yielded Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).
In the coming years, these efforts will also lead to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and commercial space stations – like the Bigelow B330. And if private aerospace companies like the Gateway Foundation get their way, we’ll also have a spaceport in orbit around Earth. The company recently posted a video showing exactly what this rotating wheel space station will look like, and how companies like SpaceX could help build it.
When it comes to space exploration, the motto “keep it simple” isn’t always followed! For the most part, satellites, spacecraft, telescopes, and the many other technologies that allow humans to study and explore the Universe are the result of highly-technical and complex feats of engineering. But sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that offer the most innovative solutions.
This is especially true when it comes to the today’s space agencies, who are concerned with cutting costs and increasing accessibility to space. A good example is the Fenix propulsion system, a proposal created by Italian tech company D-Orbit. As part of the last year’s Space Exploration Masters, this pen-sized booster will allow CubeSats to maneuver and accomplish more in space.
The Space Exploration Masters, which the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated in 2017, seeks to encourage space-based innovation and provide opportunities for commercial development. As such, this annual competition has become central to the implementation of the ESA Space Exploration strategy. For their application last year, D-Orbit was jointly awarded the the ESA and Space Application Services prize.
The thruster prototype itself measures only 10 cm long and 2 cm wide (~4 by 0.8 inches) and contain solid propellant that is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters are designed to be placed at each corner of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSat, or can be doubled up for added thrust. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space or add significantly to a CubeSat’s weight.
Currently, CubeSats are deployed directly into space, deorbit at the end of their missions, and have no means to change their orbits. But with this simple, chemical-propellant thruster, CubeSats could function for longer periods and would be able to take on more complicated missions. For instance, if they can maneuver in orbit, they will be able to study the Moon and asteroids from different angles.
In addition, boosters will allow CubeSats to deorbit themselves once they are finished their missions, thus reducing the threat of space debris. According to the latest report from the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), an estimated 19,894 bits of space junk were circling our planet by the end of 2017, with a combined mass of at least 8135 metric tons (8967 US tons). This problem is only expected to get worse.
In fact, it is estimated that the small satellite market will grow by $5.3 billion in the next decade (according to Space Works and Eurostat) and many private companies are looking to provide regular launch services to accommodate that growth. As such, a propulsion system that not only presents opportunities to do more with CubeSats, but in a way that will not add to problem of space debris, will be highly sought-after.
In addition to the ESA and Space Application Services prize, D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility, which is located in the Columbus module aboard the International Space Station. This facility is the first European commercial research center to operate aboard the ISS, and the D-Orbit team will use to test the booster’s safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment.
This experiment, which will not involve firing the actual propulsion system, will help ensure that the booster can operate safe and effectively in space. Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, while the team relies on the ICE Cubes facility’s dedicated control center to provide them with remote viewing opportunities from the ground.
The Fenix boosters are set to launch for the ISS by the end of next year and, if successful, D-Orbit will likely secure permission to test their propulsion system in space. And if all goes well, future generations of CubeSats – which have already made Low Earth Orbit (LEO) accessible to private companies and research institutes – will be capable of performing far more tasks in orbit.
For this year’s Space Exploration Masters, the ESA is partnering with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to address health and food. For the main challenge, participants will be tasked with coming up with applications that promote nutritious food and food security, both on- and 0ff-planet. Among other challenges, this year’s SEM will also be looking for ideas that make missions more sustainable and new ways to use future spacecraft.
For more information on this year’s Space Exploration Masters, check out the ESA website page.
Between 2005 and 2017, the number of people who are digitally connected increased by a factor of three and a half. In other words, the number of people with internet access went from just over 1 billion to about 3.5, from about 15% to roughly half the world’s population. And in the coming decade, it is estimated that roughly 5 billion people – that’s 70% of the world’s population – will have internet access.
Much is this growth is powered by new ways of in which internet services are being provided, which in the coming years will include space-based internet. In 2018 alone, eight new constellations of internet satellites will begin deployment to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO). Once operational, these constellations are expected to not only increas broadband access, but also demonstrate the soundness of the business model.
For instance, SpaceX will be launching a prototype internet satellite this year, the first of a planned constellation of 4,425 satellites that will make up its Starlink Service. As part of Elon Musk’s vision to bring internet access to the entire globe (one of many he’s had in recent years!), this constellation will be deployed to altitudes of 1,110 to 1,325 km (685-823 mi) – i.e. within LEO – by 2024.
Telecom and aerospace giants Samsung and Boeing are also sending internet satellites to orbit this year. In Samsung’s case, the plan is to begin deploying the first of 4,600 satellites to LEO by 2028. Once operational, this interconnected constellation will provide a 200-GB per month service in the V band for up to 5 billion users. Boeing has similar plans for a 2,956 constellation that will provide enhanced broadband (also in the V band).
The first part of this system will consist of 1,396 satellites deployed to an altitude of 1,200 km (746 mi) within the first six years. Others companies that are getting in on the ground floor of the space-based internet trend include OneWeb, Telesat LEO, SES O3B, Iridium Next and LeoSat. Each of them have plans to send between a few dozen and a few hundred satellites to LEO to enhance global bandwidth, starting this year.
Iridium, LeoSat, and SES O3B have all entered into partnerships with Thales Alenia Space, a leading designer of telecommunication and navigation satellites as well as orbital infrastructure. Thales’ resume also includes providing parts and services for the International Space Station, as well as playing major role in the development of the ATV cargo vessel, as part of the NASA/ESA Cygnus program.
In conjunction with Thales and Boeing, SES 03b plans to use its proposed constellation of 27 satellites to bridge the global digital divide. In the past, O3b was in the practice of providing cruise ships with wireless access. After merging with SES in 2016, they expanded their vision to include geosynchronous-Earth-oribit and MEO satellites. The company plans to have all its satellites operational by 2021.
Iridium is also partnering with Orbital ATK, the commercial aerospace company, to make their constellation happen. And whereas other companies are focused on providing enhanced bandwidth and access, Iridium’s main goal is to provide safety services for cockpit Wi-Fi. These services will be restricted to non-passenger flights for the time being, and will operate in the L and Ka bands.
And the there’s LeoSat’s plan to send up to 108 satellites to LEO which will be interconnected through laser links to provide what they describe as “an optical backbone in space about 1.5 times faster than terrestrial fiber backbones”. The first of these small, high-throughput satellites – which will deliver services in the Ka-band – is scheduled to launch in 2019.
Similarly, Telesat LEO hopes to create an internet satellite network to provide services that are comparable to fiber-optic internet connections. According to the company, their services will target “busy airports; military operations on land, sea and air; major shipping ports; large, remote communities; and other areas of concentrated demand.” The company plans to deploy two prototype satellites to LEO later this year, which were developed in conjunction with Airbus’ SSTL and Space Systems Loral.
With all the developments taking place these days, it does seem like the dream of a global internet (much like the Internet of Things (IoT) is fast becoming a reality. In the coming decades, we may look back at the late 20th and early 21st centuries the same way we look at the stone ages. Compared to a world where almost everyone has internet access and can download, upload, stream and surf, a world where only a few million people could do that will seem quite primitive!
When it comes to the future of space exploration, some truly interesting concepts are being developed. Hoping to reach farther and reduce associated costs, one of the overarching goals is to find more fuel-efficient and effective means of sending robotic spacecraft, satellites and even crewed missions to their destinations. Towards this end, ideas like nuclear propulsion, ion engines and even antimatter are all being considered.
But this idea has to be the strangest one to date! It’s known as a ferrofluid thruster, a new concept that relies on ionic fluids that become strongly magnetized and release ions when exposed to a magnetic field. According to a new study produced by researchers from the Ion Space Propulsion Laboratory at Michigan Tech, this concept could very well be the future of satellite propulsion.
This study, which was recently published in the journal Physics of Fluids, presents an entirely new method for creating microthrusters – tiny nozzles that are used by small satellites to maneuver in orbit. Thanks to improvements in technology, small satellites – which are typically defined as those that weight less than 500 km (1,100 lbs) – can perform tasks that were once reserved for larger ones.
As such, they are making up an increasingly large share of the satellite market, and many more are expected to be launched in the near future. In fact, it is estimated that between 2015 and 2019, over 500 small satellites will be launched to LEO, with an estimated market value of $7.4 billion. Little wonder then why researchers are looking at various types of microthrusters to ensure that these satellites can maneuver effectively.
While there are no shortage of possibilities, finding the one that balances cost-effectiveness and reliability has been difficult. To address this, an MTU research team began conducting a study that considered ferrofluids as a possible solution. As noted, ferrofluids are ionic liquids that become active when exposed to a magnetic field, forming peaks that emit small amounts of ions.
These peaks then return to a natural state when the magnetic field is removed, a phenomena known as Rosenweig instability. Led by Brandon A. Jackson – a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University – the MTU research team began to consider how this could be turned into propulsion. Other members included fellow doctoral candidate Kurt Terhune and Professor Lyon B. King.
Prof. King, the Ron & Elaine Starr Professor in Space Systems at Michigan Tech, has been researching the physics of ferrofluids for many years, thanks to support provided by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). In 2012, he proposed using such ionic fluids to create a microthruster for modern satellites, based on previous studies conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney.
As he explained in a MTU press release, this method offers a simple and effective way to create a reliable microthruster:
“We’re working with a unique material called an ionic liquid ferrofluid. When we put a magnet underneath a small pool of the ferrofluid, it turns into a beautiful hedgehog structure of aligned peaks. When we apply a strong electric field to that array of peaks, each one emits an individual micro-jet of ions.”
With King’s help, who oversees MTU’s Ion Space Propulsion Laboratory, Jackson and Tehrune began conducting an an experimental and computational study on the dynamics of the ferrofluid. From this, they created a computational model that taught them much about the relationships between magnetic, electric and surface tension stresses, and were even surprised by some of what they saw.
“We wanted to learn what led up to emission instability in one single peak of the ferrofluid microthruster,” said Jackson. “We learned that the magnetic field has a large effect in preconditioning the fluid electric stress.”
Ultimately, what they had created was a model for an electrospray ionic liquid ferrofluid thruster. Unlike conventional electrospray thrusters – which generate propulsion with electrical charges that send tiny jets of fluid through microscopic needles – a ferrofluid electrospray thruster would be able to do away with these needles, which are expensive to manufacture and vulnerable to damage.
Instead, the thruster they are proposing would be able to assemble itself out of its own propellant, would rely on no fragile parts, and would essentially be indestructible. It would also present advantages over conventional plasma thrusters, which are apparently unreliable when scaled down for small satellites. With the success of their model, the AFOSR recently decided to award King a second contract to continue studying ferrofluids.
With this funding secured, King is confident that they can put what they learned with this study to good use, and scale it up to examine what happens with multiple peaks. As he explained:
“Often in the lab we’ll have one peak working and 99 others loafing. Brandon’s model will be a vital tool for the team going forward. If we are successful, our thruster will enable small inexpensive satellites with their own propulsion to be mass produced. That could improve remote sensing for better climate modeling, or provide better internet connectivity, which three billion people in the world still do not have.”
Looking ahead, the team wants to conduct experiments on how an actual thruster might perform. The team has also begun working with Professor Juan Fernandez de la Mora of Yale University, one of the world’s leading experts on electrospray propulsion, to help bring their proposal to fruition. Naturally, it will take many years before a prototype is ready, and such a thruster would likely have to be able to execute about 100 peaks to be considered viable.
Nevertheless, the technology holds promise for a market that is expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades. Facilitating everything from worldwide internet access and telecommunications to scientific research, there is likely to be no shortage of smallsats, cubesats, nanosats, etc. taking to space very soon. They will all need to have reliable propulsion if they want to be able to stay clear of each other do their jobs!
Michigan Tech also has patents pending for the technology, which has applications that go beyond propulsion to include spectrometry, pharmaceuticals, and nanofabrication.
Looking to the future of space exploration, there really is no question that it will involve a growing human presence in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This will include not only successors to the International Space Station, but most likely commercial habitats and facilities. These will not only allow for ventures like space tourism, but will also facilitate missions that take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and even beyond.
With this purpose in mind, an interdisciplinary team of MIT graduate students designed a space habitat known as the Managed, Reconfigurable, In-space Nodal Assembly (MARINA). This module would serve as an privately-owned space station that would be occupied by two anchor-tenants for a period of ten years; a luxury hotel that would provide orbital accommodations, and NASA.
Since 2002, RASC-AL competitions have sought to engage university students and advisors for the purpose of coming up with ideas that could enhancing future NASA missions. For this year’s competition, NASA asked teams to develop human spaceflight concepts that focused on operations in cislunar space – i.e. in, around, and beyond the Moon – that could also facilitate their proposed “Journey to Mars” by the 2030s.
Specifically, they were tasked with finding ways to leverage innovations and new technologies to improve humanity’s ability to work more effectively in microgravity. With this in mind, the themes for this year’s competition ranged from from the design of more efficient subsystems to the development of architectures that support NASA’s goal of extending humanity’s reach into space.
These included new designs for a Lightweight Exercise Suite, Airlock Design, concepts for a Commercially Enabled LEO/Mars Habitable Module, and concepts for a new Logistics Delivery System. As Pat Troutman, the Human Exploration Strategic Analysis lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center, said in a NASA press statement:
“We are carefully examining what it will take to establish a presence beyond low-Earth orbit, where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems needed for challenging missions to distant destinations, including Mars. The 2017 RASC-AL university teams have developed exciting concepts with supporting engineering analysis that may influence how future deep space infrastructure will look and operate.”
Led by Matthew Moraguez, a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and a member of the Strategic Engineering Research Group (SERG), the MIT team focused on the theme of creating a Commercially Enabled LEO Habitat Module. Their concept, which incorporates lessons that have been learned from the ISS, was designed with the needs of both the private and public space sectors in mind.
“Just like a yacht marina, MARINA can provide all essential services, including safe harbor, reliable power, clean water and air, and efficient logistics and maintenance. This will facilitate design simplicity and savings in construction and operating costs of customer-owned modules. It will also incent customers to lease space inside and outside MARINA’s node modules and make MARINA a self-funded entity that is attractive to investors.”
To meet their goals for the competition , the team came up with a modular design for MARINA that featured several key innovations. These included extensions to the International Docking System Standard (IDSS) interface (used aboard the ISS), modular architecture, and a distribution of subsystem functions throughout these modules. As Moraguez explained, their design will allow for some wide-ranging opportunities.
“Modularized service racks connect any point on MARINA to any other point via the extended IDSS interface,” he said. “This enables companies of all sizes to provide products and services in space to other companies, based on terms determined by the open market. Together these decisions provide scalability, reliability, and efficient technology development benefits to MARINA and NASA.”
Another important benefit comes in the form of cost-savings. According to NASA estimates, the recurring cost of MARINA will be about $360 million per year, which represents a significant reduction over the current costs of maintaining and operating the ISS. In total, it would offer NASA a savings of about $3 billion per year, which is approximately 16% of the agency’s annual budget.
But what is perhaps most interesting about the MARINA concept is the fact that it could serve as the world’s first space hotel. According to Valentina Suminia, a postdoc at MIT who contributed to the architectural concept, the space hotel will be “a luxury Earth-facing eight-room space hotel complete with bar, restaurant, and gym, will make orbital space holidays a reality.”
Other commercial features include serviced berths that would be rented out to accommodate customer-owned modules. This goes for the station’s interior modularized rack space as well, where smaller companies that provide contract services to on-board occupants would be able to rent out space. Would it be too much to ask that it also has robot butlers?
The RASCAL competition began in August of 2016 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and concluded on June 2nd, 2017. The top overall honors were awarded to the teams from Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland for their space habitat concepts, known as Project Theseus and Ultima Thule, respectively.
After the historic Apollo Missions, which saw humans set foot on another celestial body for the first time in history, NASA and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) began to shift their priorities away from pioneering space exploration and began to focus on developing long-term capabilities in space. In the ensuing decades (from the 1970s to 1990s), both agencies began to build and deploy space stations, each one bigger and more complex than the last.
The latest and greatest of these is the International Space Station (ISS), a scientific facility that resides in Low-Earth Orbit around our planet. This space station is the largest and most sophisticated orbiting research facility ever built and is so large that it can actually be seen with the naked eye. Central to its mission is the idea of fostering international cooperation for the sake of advancing science and space exploration.
Planning for the ISS began in the 1980s and was based in part on the successes of Russia’s Mir space station, NASA’s Skylab, and the Space Shuttle Program. This station, it was hoped, would allow for the future utilization of low-Earth Orbit and its resources, and serve as an intermediate base for renewed exploration efforts to the Moon, mission to Mars, and beyond.
In May of 1982, NASA established the Space Station task force, which was charged with creating a conceptual framework for such a space station. In the end, the ISS plan that emerged was a culmination of several different plans for a space station – which included NASA’s Freedom and the Soviet’s Mir-2 concepts, as well as Japan’s Kibo laboratory, and the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory.
The Freedom concept called for a modular space station to be deployed to orbit, where it would serve as the counterpart to the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations. That same year, NASA approached the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) to participate in the program with the creation of the Kibo, also known as the Japanese Experiment Module.
The Canadian Space Agency was similarly approached in 1982 and was asked to provide robotic support for the station. Thanks to the success of the Canadarm, which was an integral part of the Space Shuttle Program, the CSA agreed to develop robotic components that would assist with docking, perform maintenance, and assist astronauts with spacewalks.
In 1984, the ESA was invited to participate in the construction of the station with the creation of the Columbus laboratory – a research and experimental lab specializing in materials science. The construction of both the Kibo and Columbus modules was approved in 1985. As the most ambitious space program in either agency’s history, the development of these laboratories was seen as central to Europe and Japan’s emerging space capability.
In 1993, American Vice-President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that they would be pooling the resources intended to create Freedom and Mir-2. Instead of two separate space stations, the programs would be working collaboratively to create a single space station – which was later named the International Space Station.
Construction of the ISS was made possible with the support of multiple federal space agencies, which included NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, the CSA, and members of the ESA – specifically Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) also contributed to the construction effort.
The orbital construction of the space station began in 1998 after the participating nations signed the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), which established a legal framework that stressed cooperation based on international law. The participating space agencies also signed the Four Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs), which laid out their responsibilities in the design, development, and use of the station.
The assembly process began in 1998 with the deployment of the ‘Zarya’ (“Sunrise” in Russian) Control Module, or Functional Cargo Block. Built by the Russians with funding from the US, this module was designed to provide the station’s initial propulsion and power. The pressurized module – which weighed over 19,300 kg (42,600 pounds) – was launched aboard a Russian Proton rocket in November 1998.
On Dec. 4th, the second component – the ‘Unity’ Node – was placed into orbit by the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-88), along with two pressurized mating adapters. This node was one of three – Harmony and Tranquility being the other two – that would form the ISS’ main hull. On Sunday, Dec. 6th, it was mated to Zarya by the STS-88 crew inside the shuttle’s payload bay.
The next installments came in the year 2000, with the deployment of the Zvezda Service Module (the first habitation module) and multiple supply missions conducted by the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-92) also delivered the station’s third pressurized mating adapted and a Ku-band antenna in October. By the end of the month, the first Expedition crew was launched aboard a Soyuz rocket, which arrived on Nov. 2nd.
No additional modules or components were added until 2016 when Bigelow Aerospace installed their experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). All told, it took 13 years to construct the space station, an estimated $100 billion and required more than 100 rocket and Space Shuttle launches, and 160 spacewalks.
As of the penning of this article, the station has been continuously occupied for a period of 16 years and 74 days since the arrival of Expedition 1 on November 2nd, 2000. This is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of 9 years and 357 days.
Purpose and Aims:
The main purpose of the ISS is fourfold: conducting scientific research, furthering space exploration, facilitating education and outreach, and fostering international cooperation. These goals are backed by NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscomos), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the European Space Agency (ESA), with additional support from other nations and institutions.
As far as scientific research goes, the ISS provides a unique environment to conduct experiments under microgravity conditions. Whereas crewed spacecraft provide a limited platform that is only deployed to space for a limited amount of time, the ISS allows for long-term studies that can last for years (or even decades).
Many different and continuous projects are being conducted aboard the ISS, which are made possible with the support of a full-time crew of six astronauts, and a continuity of visiting vehicles (which also allows for resupply and crew rotations). Scientists on Earth have access to their data and are able to communicate with the science teams through a number of channels.
The many fields of research conducted aboard the ISS include astrobiology, astronomy, human research, life sciences, physical sciences, space weather, and meteorology. In the case of space weather and meteorology, the ISS is in a unique position to study these phenomena because of its position in LEO. Here, it has a short orbital period, allowing it to witness weather across the entire globe many times in a single day.
It is also exposed to things like cosmic rays, solar wind, charged subatomic particles, and other phenomena that characterize a space environment. Medical research aboard the ISS is largely focused on the long-term effects of microgravity on living organisms – particularly its effects on bone density, muscle degeneration, and organ function – which is intrinsic to long-range space exploration missions.
The ISS also conducts research that is beneficial to space exploration systems. Its location in LEO also allows for the testing of spacecraft systems that are required for long-range missions. It also provides an environment where astronauts can gain vital experience in terms of operations, maintenance, and repair services – which are similarly crucial for long-term missions (such as missions to the Moon and Mars).
The ISS also provides opportunities for education thanks to participation in experiments, where students are able to design experiments and watch as ISS crews carry them out. ISS astronauts are also able to engage classrooms through video links, radio communications, email, and educational videos/web episodes. Various space agencies also maintain educational materials for download based on ISS experiments and operations.
Educational and cultural outreach also fall within the ISS’ mandate. These activities are conducted with the help and support of the participating federal space agencies and are designed to encourage education and career training in the STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering, Math) fields.
One of the best-known examples of this is the educational videos created by Chris Hadfield – the Canadian astronaut who served as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the ISS – which chronicled the everyday activities of ISS astronauts. He also directed a great deal of attention to ISS activities thanks to his musical collaboration with the Barenaked Ladies and Wexford Gleeks – titled “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)” (shown above).
His video, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, also earned him widespread acclaim. Along with drawing additional attention to the ISS and its crew operations, it was also a major feat since it was the only music video ever to be filmed in space!
Operations Aboard the ISS:
As noted, the ISS is facilitated by rotating crews and regular launches that transport supplies, experiments, and equipment to the station. These take the form of both crewed and uncrewed vehicles, depending on the nature of the mission. Crews are generally transported aboard Russian Progress spacecraft, which are launched via Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Roscosmos has conducted a total of 60 trips to the ISS using Progress spacecraft, while 40 separate launches were conducted using Soyuz rockets. Some 35 flights were also made to the station using the now-retired NASA Space Shuttles, which transported crew, experiments, and supplies. The ESA and JAXA have both conducted 5 cargo transfer missions, using the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), respectively.
In more recent years, private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been contracted to provide resupply missions to the ISS, which they have done using their Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft. Additional spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, are expected to provide crew transportation in the future.
Alongside the development of reusable first-stage rockets, these efforts are being carried out in part to restore domestic launch capability to the US. Since 2014, tensions between the Russian Federation and the US have led to growing concerns over the future of Russian-American cooperation with programs like the ISS.
Crew activities consist of conducting experiments and research considered vital to space exploration. These activities are scheduled from 06:00 to 21:30 hours UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), with breaks being taken for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and regular crew conferences. Every crew member has their own quarters (which includes a tethered sleeping bag), two of which are located in the Zvezda Module and four more installed in Harmony.
During “night hours”, the windows are covered to give the impression of darkness. This is essential since the station experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. Two exercise periods of 1 hour each are scheduled every day to ensure that the risks of muscle atrophy and bone loss are minimized. The exercise equipment includes two treadmills, the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) for simulated weight training, and a stationary bicycle.
Hygiene is maintained thanks to water jets and soap dispensed from tubes, as well as wet wipes, rinseless shampoo, and edible toothpaste. Sanitation is provided by two space toilets – both of Russian design – aboard the Zvezda and Tranquility Modules. Similar to what was available aboard the Space Shuttle, astronauts fasten themselves to the toilet seat and the removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole.
Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (yes, astronauts drink their own urine, after a fashion!). Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which are then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal.
Food aboard the station consists mainly of freeze-dried meals in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Canned goods are available, but are limited due to their weight (which makes them more expensive to transport). Fresh fruit and vegetables are brought during resupply missions, and a large array of spices and condiments are used to ensure that food is flavorful – which is important since one of the effects of microgravity is a diminished sense of taste.
To prevent spillage, drinks and soups are contained in packets and consumed with a straw. Solid food is eaten with a knife and fork, which are attached to a tray with magnets to prevent them from floating away, while drinks are provided in dehydrated powder form and then mixed with water. Any food or crumbs that floats away must be collected to prevent them from clogging the air filters and other equipment.
Life aboard the station also carries with it a high degree of risk. These come in the form of radiation, the long-term effects of microgravity on the human physique, the psychological effects of being in space (i.e. stress and sleep disturbances), and the danger of collision with space debris.
In terms of radiation, objects within the Low-Earth Orbit environment are partially protected from solar radiation and cosmic rays by the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, without the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts are still exposed to about 1 millisievert a day, which is the equivalent of what a person on Earth is exposed to during the course of a year.
As a result, astronauts are at higher risk for developing cancer, suffering DNA and chromosomal damage, and diminished immune system function. Hence why protective shielding and drugs are a must aboard the station, as well as protocols for limiting exposure. For instance, during solar flare activity, crews are able to seek shelter in the more heavily shielded Russian Orbital Segment of the station.
As already noted, the effects of microgravity also take a toll on muscle tissues and bone density. According to a 2001 study conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) – which researched the effects on an astronaut Scott Kelly’s body after he spent a year aboard the ISS – bone density loss occurs at a rate of over 1% per month.
Similarly, a report by the Johnson Space Center – titled “Muscle Atrophy” – stated that astronauts experience up to a 20% loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting just five to 11 days. In addition, more recent studies have indicated that the long-term effects of being in space also include diminished organ function, decreased metabolism, and reduced eyesight.
Because of this, astronauts exercise regularly in order to minimize muscle and bone loss, and their nutritional regimen is designed to make sure they the appropriate nutrients to maintain proper organ function. Beyond that, the long-term health effects, and additional strategies to combat them, are still being investigated.
But perhaps the greatest hazard comes in the form of orbiting junk – aka. space debris. At present, there are over 500,000 pieces of debris that are being tracked by NASA and other agencies as they orbit the Earth. An estimated 20,000 of these are larger than a softball, while the remainder are about the size of a pebble. All told, there are likely to be many millions of pieces of debris in orbit, but most are so small they can’t be tracked.
These objects can travel at speeds of up to 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), while the ISS orbits the Earth at a speed of 27,600 km/h (17,200 mph). As a result, a collision with one of these objects could be catastrophic to the ISS. The station is naturally shielded to withstand impacts from tiny bits of debris and well as micro-meteoroids – and this shielding is divided between the Russian Orbital Segment and the US Orbital Segment.
On the USOS, the shielding consists of a thin aluminum sheet that is held apart from the hull. This sheet causes objects to shatter into a cloud, thereby dispersing the kinetic energy of the impact before it reaches the main hull. On the ROS, shielding takes the form of a carbon plastic honeycomb screen, an aluminum honeycomb screen, and glass cloth, all of which are spaced over the hull.
The ROS’ shielding is less likely to be punctured, hence why the crew moves to the ROS whenever a more serious threat presents itself. But when faced with the possibility of an impact from a larger object that is being tracked, the station performs what is known as a Debris Avoidance Manoeuvre (DAM). In this event, the thrusters on the Russian Orbital Segment fire in order to alter the station’s orbital altitude, thus avoiding the debris.
Future of the ISS:
Given its reliance on international cooperation, there have been concerns in recent years – in response to growing tensions between Russia, the United States, and NATO – about the future of the International Space Station. However, for the time being, operations aboard the station are secure, thanks to commitments made by all of the major partners.
In January of 2014, the Obama Administration announced that it would be extending funding for the US portion of the station until 2024. Roscosmos has endorsed this extension but has also voiced approval for a plan that would use elements of the Russian Orbital Segment to construct a new Russian space station.
Known as the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEK), the proposed station would serve as an assembly platform for crewed spacecraft traveling to the Moon, Mars, and the outer Solar System. There have also been tentative announcements made by Russian officials about a possible collaborative effort to build a future replacement for the ISS. However, NASA has yet to confirm these plans.
In April of 2015, the Canadian government approved a budget that included funding to ensure the CSA’s participation with the ISS through 2024. In December of 2015, JAXA and NASA announced their plans for a new cooperative framework for the International Space Station (ISS), which included Japan extending its participation until 2024. As of December 2016, the ESA has also committed to extending its mission to 2024.
The ISS represents one of the greatest collaborative and international efforts in history, not to mention one of the greatest scientific undertakings. In addition to providing a location for crucial scientific experiments that cannot be conducted here on Earth, it is also conducting research that will help humanity make its next great leaps in space – i.e. mission to Mars and beyond!
On top of all that, it has been a source of inspiration for countless millions who dream of going to space someday! Who knows what great undertakings the ISS will allow for before it is finally decommissioned – most likely decades from now?
Every year, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program puts out the call to the general public, hoping to find better or entirely new aerospace architectures, systems, or mission ideas. As part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program has been in operation since 1998, serving as a high-level entry point to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers who want to contribute to human space exploration.
This year, thirteen concepts were chosen for Phase I of the NIAC program, ranging from reprogrammed microorganisms for Mars, a two-dimensional spacecraft that could de-orbit space debris, an analog rover for extreme environments, a robot that turn asteroids into spacecraft, and a next-generation exoplanet hunter. These proposals were awarded $100,000 each for a nine month period to assess the feasibility of their concept.