Look at This Adorable Pen-Sized Booster, Perfect for Tiny Satellites

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 Fenix propulsion system, as it would be fitted to a CubeSat. Credit: D-Orbit

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.

Artist’s impression of a series of CubeSats orbiting Earth. Credit: ESA/Medialab

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.

Further Reading: ESA

This is the Year Internet From Space Gets Really Serious

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!

Featured: Aviation Week, Popular Mechanics

This is the Strangest Idea Ever for a Spacecraft Propulsion System: Ferrofluids

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 the magnetic field is applied, the ferrofluid forms “peaks”, which disappear once the field is removed. Click to animate. Credit: MTU

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.

Without a magnetic field, ferrofluids look like a tarry, oil-based fuel. With a magnetic field, the propellant self-assembles, raising into a spiky ball. Credit: MTU

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.”

Cubesats being launched from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

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.”

In the coming years, small satellites are expected to make up an ever-increasing portion of all artificial objects that are currently in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: ESA

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.

Further Reading: MTU, Physics of Fluids

I Wonder if it has Room Service? Here’s the Space Hotel that Won a Recent NASA Competition

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.

For their invention, the team won first prize in the graduate division of the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage Design Competition Forum (RASC-AL), a yearlong graduate-level competition hosted by NASA. This challenge involved designing a commercial module for use in low Earth orbit that could also serve as a Mars transit vehicle in the future.

In the future, LEO will become home to commercial modules (like the Bigelow Aerospace B330 expandable module, shown here), will become a reality. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

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.”

Members of the MIT team (from left to right): Caitlin Mueller (faculty advisor), Matthew Moraguez, George Lordos, and Valentina Sumini. Credit: MIT/MARINA team

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.

As George Lordos – a graduate fellow in the MIT System Design and Management (SDM) Program, and a team member of both MARINA and SERG – explained:

“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.

Further Reading: MIT, NASA

What is the International Space Station?

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.

Origin:

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.

The Mir space station hangs above the Earth in 1995 (photo taken by the mission crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-71). Credit: NASA

In May of 1982, NASA established the Space Station task force, which was charged with created 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. Construction of both Kibo and Columbus were approved of 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.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

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:

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 19,3oo 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 stations 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.

In 2001, the ‘Destiny’ Laboratory Module and the ‘Pirs’ Docking Compartment were delivered. The modular racks that are part of Destiny were also shipped using the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules (MPLM) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and put into place using the Canadarm2 robotic arm. 2002 saw additional racks, truss segments, solar arrays, and the Mobile Base System for the Station’s Mobile Servicing System being delivered.

In 2007, the European Harmony module was installed, which allowed for the addition of the Columbus and Kibo laboratories – both of which were added in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, construction was finalized with the addition of the Russian Mini-Research Module-1 and -2 (MRM1 and MRM2), the ‘Tranquility’ Node, the Cupola Observation Module, the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module, and the Robonaut 2 technology suite.

The structure of the ISS (exploded in this diagram) showing the various components and how they are assembled together. Credit: NASA

No additional modules or components were added until 2016, when Bigelow Aersopace 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 mission 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 link, 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 which are designed to encourage education and career training in the STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering, Math) fields.

One of the best known examples of this are 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 craft, 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 Russia 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 at 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 it from clogging the air filters and other equipment.

Hazards:

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 the 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 stations 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 has been concern 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 has 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 which 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 one day dream of going into space! Who knows what great undertakings the ISS will allow for before it is finally decommissioned – most likely decades from now?

We have written many interesting articles about the ISS here at Universe Today. Here’s International Space Station Achieves 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence in Orbit, Beginner’s Guide to Seeing the International Space Station, Take a Virtual 3-D Spacewalk Outside the International Space Station, International Space Station Viewing and Space Station Pictures.

For more information, check out the NASA Reference Guide to the ISS and this article about the 10th anniversary of the space station.

Astronomy Cast also has relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Questions: An Unlocked Moon, Energy Into Black Holes, and the Space Station’s Orbit, and Episode 298: Space Stations, Part 3 – International Space Station.

Sources:

NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration

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.

Continue reading “NASA Invests In Radical Game-Changing Concepts For Exploration”

Here’s a Better Use for Fighter Jets: Launching Satellites

For decades, the human race has been deploying satellites into orbit. And in all that time, the method has remained the same – a satellite is placed aboard a booster rocket which is then launched from a limited number of fixed ground facilities with limited slots available. This process not only requires a month or more of preparation, it requires years of planning and costs upwards of millions of dollars.

On top of all that, fixed launch sites are limited in terms of the timing and direction of orbits they can establish, and launches can be delayed by things as simple as bad weather.  As such, DARPA has been working towards a new method of satellite deployment, one which eliminates rockets altogether. It’s known as the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), a concept which could turn any airstrip into a spaceport and significantly reduce the cost of deploying satellites.

What ALASA comes down to is a cheap, expendable dispatch launch vehicle that can be mounted onto the underside of an aircraft, flown to a high altitude, and then launched from the craft into low earth orbit. By using the aircraft as a first-stage, satellite deployment will not only become much cheaper, but much more flexible.

DARPA’s aim in creating ALASA was to ensure a three-fold decrease in launch costs, but also to create a system that could carry payloads of up to 45 kg (100 lbs) into orbit with as little as 24 hours’ notice. Currently, small satellite payloads cost roughly $66,000 a kilogram ($30,000 per pound) to launch, and payloads often must share a launcher. ALASA seeks to bring that down to a total of $1 million per launch, and to ensure that satellites can be deployed more precisely.

Artist's concept of the ALASA second stage firing (Credit: DARPA)
Artist’s concept of the ALASA second stage firing. Credit: DARPA

News of the agency’s progress towards this was made at the 18th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference (Feb 4th and 5th) in Washington, DC. Bradford Tousley, the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, reported on the progress of the agency’s program, claiming that they had successfully completed phase one, which resulted in three viable system designs.

Phase two – which began in March of 2014 when DARPA awarded Boeing the prime contract for development – will consist of DARPA incorporating commercial-grade avionics and advanced composites into the design. Once this is complete, it will involve launch tests that will gauge the launch vehicle’s ability to deploy satellites to desired locations.

“We’ve made good progress so far toward ALASA’s ambitious goal of propelling 100-pound satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) within 24 hours of call-up, all for less than $1 million per launch,” said Tousley in an official statement. “We’re moving ahead with rigorous testing of new technologies that we hope one day could enable revolutionary satellite launch systems that provide more affordable, routine and reliable access to space.”

These technologies include the use of a high-energy monopropellant, where fuel and oxidizer are combined into a single liquid. This technology, which is still largely experimental, will also cut the costs associated with satellite launches by both simplifying engine design and reducing the cost of engine manufacture and operation.

Artisti's concept of the ALASA deploying into orbit. Credit: DARPA
Artist’s concept of the ALASA vehicle deploying into orbit. Credit: DARPA

Also, the ability to launch satellites from runways instead of fixed launch sites presents all kinds of advantages. At present, the Department of Defense (DoD) and other government agencies require scheduling years in advance because the number of slots and locations are very limited. This slow, expensive process is causing a bottleneck when it comes to deploying essential space assets, and is also inhibiting the pace of scientific research and commercial interests in space.

“ALASA seeks to overcome the limitations of current launch systems by streamlining design and manufacturing and leveraging the flexibility and re-usability of an air-launched system,” said Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA program manager for ALASA. “We envision an alternative to ride-sharing for satellites that enables satellite owners to launch payloads from any location into orbits of their choosing, on schedules of their choosing, on a launch vehicle designed specifically for small payloads.”

The program began in earnest in 2011, with the agency conducting initial trade studies and market/business case analysis. In November of that same year, development began with both system designs and the development of the engine and propellant technologies. Phase 2 is planned to last late into 2015, with the agency conducting tests of both the vehicle and the monopropellant.

Pending a successful run, the program plan includes 12 orbital launches to test the integrated ALASA prototype system – which is slated to take place in the first half of 2016. Depending on test results, the program would conduct up to 11 further demonstration launches through the summer of 2016. If all goes as planned, ALASA would provide convenient, cost-effective launch capabilities for the growing government and commercial markets for small satellites, which are currently the fastest-growing segment of the space launch industry.

And be sure to check out this concept video of the ALASA, courtesy of DARPA:

Further Reading: DARPA TTO, DARPA News

2015 Expected to be a Record-Breaking Year for Soyuz-2 Workhorse

2014 was a banner year for the Russian Space Agency, with a record-setting fourteen launches of the next generation unmanned Soyuz-2 rocket. A number of other firsts took place in the course of the year as well, cementing the Soyuz family of rockets as the most flown and most reliable rocket group ever.

But already it seems as though the new year will be an even better year, with a full 20 missions already scheduled to take place, a number of them holdovers from 2014.

The Soyuz 2 launcher currently operates alongside the Soyuz-U (mainly used for launching the unmanned Progress Resupply Spacecraft to the International Space Station) and the Soyuz FG (primarily used for human flights with the Soyuz Spacecraft for missions to ISS), but according to Spaceflight 101, the Soyuz 2 will eventually replace the other vehicles once they are phased out.

In fact, in October of 2014, the Soyuz 2 had its first launch of a Progress cargo spacecraft. Other achievements were that the last two launches of the year were conducted without the aid of DM blocks – a derivative of the Blok D upper stage launch rocket developed during the 1960’s.

As Leonid Shalimov, the CEO of NPO Avtomatiki, the Russian electronic engineering and research organization, said in an interview with the government-owned Russian news agency TASS: “Fourteen launches of Soyuz-2 were carried out in 2014 – a record number in the company history,” he said. “Meanwhile, a total of 19 launches were planned in the outgoing year, five have been postponed till 2015.”

Soyuz-2 rocket preparing to launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June, 2013. Image Credit: Russian Space News
Soyuz-2 rocket preparing to launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in June, 2013. Image Credit: Russian Space News

As a leader in the development of radio-electronic equipment and rocket space systems, the company is behind the development of a number of automated and integrated control systems that are used in space, at sea, heavy industry, and by oil and natural gas companies.

However, it is arguably the company’s work with Soyuz-2 rockets that has earned the most attention. As a general designation for the newest version of the rocket, the Soyuz-2 is essentially a three-stage rocket carrier and will be used to transport crews and supplies into Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Compared to previous generations of the rocket, the Soyuz-2 features updated engines with improved injection systems on the first-stage boosters, as well as the two core engine stages.

Unlike previous incarnations, the Soyuz-2 can also be launched from a fixed launched platform since they are capable of performing rolls while in flight to change their heading. The old analog control systems have also been upgraded with a new digital flight control and telemetry systems that can adapt to changing conditions in mid-flight.

Russia is developing a new generation Advanced Crew Transportation System. Its first flight to the Moon is planned for 2028. Credit: TASS
The Advanced Crew Transportation System, a next-generation reusable craft intended for a Russian lunar mission in 2028. Credit: TASS

In total, some 42 launches of this rocket have taken place over the past decade, the first taking place on November 8th, 2004  from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome – located about 200 km outside of Archangel.

The majority of launches were for the sake of deploying weather, observation and communication satellites.

You can see a full list of Soyuz launches and missions scheduled for 2015 here at the RussianSpaceWeb.

Long-term, the Soyuz-2 is also expected to play a key role in Russia’s plan for a manned lunar mission, which is tentatively scheduled to take place in 2028.

Further Reading: TASS