Astronauts and cosmonauts in space have reported spatial disorientation problems, where they find it hard to get a sense of direction, or distinguish between what might be considered “up” or “down.” This is called “Visual Reorientation Illusions” (VRIs) where the spacecraft floors, walls and ceiling surfaces can suddenly exchange subjective identities.
An extreme example of this came when one shuttle astronaut reported feeling like the room was rotating around him when he opened his eyes one morning. Other astronauts have reported briefly not knowing where they were during a spacewalk.
The ESA is developing its own spacecraft capable of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The reusable spacecraft is called the Space RIDER (Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return), and the ESA says that the Space Rider will be ready for launch by 2022. It’s being designed to launch on the Vega-C rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
The Planetary Society is going to launch their LightSail 2 CubeSat next month. LightSail 2 is a test mission designed to study the feasibility of using sunlight for propulsion. The small satellite will use the pressure of sunlight on its solar sails to propel its way to a higher orbit.
Today’s breed of billionaire space entrepreneurs likes to keep us guessing, don’t they? Mr. Elon Musk is famous for announcing partial plans on Twitter, then leaving us to cajole the details out of him. Now, Jim Bezos, Amazon founder and Blue Origin visionary, is making us guess what an upcoming mysterious announcement might mean, all on the tails of another successful flight for New Shepard.
One of the technological hurdles of our age is to get people and equipment into space more cheaply. SpaceX gets a lot of the headlines around that, with their reusable rockets. And so does Blue Origin, to some degree. Now a small start-up affiliated with Purdue University is tackling the problem and making some headway.
The company is called Leo Aerospace LLC and they’re using balloons to lower the cost of putting micro-satellites into orbit, rather than reusable rockets. The balloons will be reusable, but the rockets won’t.
Leo Aerospace plans to revive a decades-old method of putting satellites into space. They’re using hot air balloons to lift the rocket and its micro-satellite payload 18 km (11 miles) above Earth. At that altitude, there’s 95% less atmosphere. This means much less drag on the rocket, which translates into smaller rockets with less fuel. This is an intriguing idea, if not for the unfortunate name.
The rockoons will be used to launch rockets into sub-orbital and orbital flights. Sub-orbitals are often used by researchers because it gives them access to zero gravity and to vacuum, both of which are necessary for some experiments. According to Leo Aerospace, there’s something revolutionary about their plans.
“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you.’” – Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s Head of Vehicle Development.
They intend on targeting micro-satellite developers. Micro-satellites are often hitch-hikers on larger payloads, which basically means they’re second-class customers. They have to wait until there’s room for their micro-satellite on a traditional rocket carrying a larger payload. This can mean long delays of several months, and that micro-satellite developers have to compromise when it comes to the orbits they can obtain. It can also make micro-satellite missions difficult to plan and execute efficiently and economically. Micro-satellites are becoming more and more capable, so having a launch system tailor-made for them could indeed be revolutionary.
“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you,’” said Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s head of vehicle development. “‘We will work with you exclusively to get you into orbit. You won’t have to worry about other payloads or getting dropped off in the wrong spot.’”
The flexibility of the rockoon system that Leo Aerospace is developing will be intriguing for micro-satellites. Rockoons will give micro-satellites the flexibility they need to operate efficiently. The launch can be scheduled and adapted to the needs of the individual satellite. “Our goal is to give people access to space. The only way to do that right now is to help people get their satellite into orbit. That’s where we want to leave our mark,” said Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace.
“Our goal is to give people access to space.” – Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace
The rockoon itself is a hybrid of a balloon and a rocket. The hybrid design takes advantage of physics by using the balloon to float the rocket 18 km high before launching the rocket. The rockoon has Leo Aerospace’s own patent-pending technology to control the pitch and angle of the launch, allowing for precision launches.
Rockoons were first used by the US Air Force back in the 1950s. But this next generation of rockoons, coupled with modern micro-satellites, will be much more capable than the 1950s technology.
Currently, Leo Aerospace is in the development and funding phase. They’ve obtained some funding from the National Science Foundation, and from a venture capital firm. They have about half of the $250,000 they need. They plan to conduct their first sub-orbital flight in 2020, and to launch their first micro-satellite into orbit in 2022. They intend to use existing approved launch sites.
Leo Aerospace was founded by five then-students at Purdue University. Leo started as a club, but the former students have turned it into a business. And that business seems to have a bright future. They conducted a customer discovery and market validation study and found a large demand for a better way to launch micro-satellites.
“We want to be part of the space market,” Murali said. “People are interested in space and creating technologies that not only can operate in space but also help people back on Earth. What we’re trying to do is help them get there.”
But they still need a better name than “rockoons.”
The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.
A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.
The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.
Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)
Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”
In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”
The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.
The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.
Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.
“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.
Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.
“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”
“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”
Geoscience researchers at Penn State University are finally figuring out what organic farmers have always known: digestive waste can help produce food. But whereas farmers here on Earth can let microbes in the soil turn waste into fertilizer, which can then be used to grow food crops, the Penn State researchers have to take a different route. They are trying to figure out how to let microbes turn waste directly into food.
There are many difficulties with long-duration space missions, or with lengthy missions to other worlds like Mars. One of the most challenging difficulties is how to take enough food. Food for a crew of astronauts on a 6-month voyage to Mars, and enough for a return trip, weighs a lot. And all that weight has to be lifted into space by expensive rockets.
Carrying enough food for a long voyage in space is problematic. Up until now, the solution for providing that food has been focused on growing it in hydroponic chambers and greenhouses. But that also takes lots of space, water, and energy. And time. It’s not really a solution.
“It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
What the researchers at Penn State, led by Professor of Geosciences Christopher House, are trying to develop, is a method of turning waste directly into an edible, nutritious substance. Their aim is to cut out the middle man, as it were. And in this case, the middle men are plants themselves, like tomatoes, potatoes, or other fruits and vegetables.
“We envisioned and tested the concept of simultaneously treating astronauts’ waste with microbes while producing a biomass that is edible either directly or indirectly depending on safety concerns,” said Christopher House, professor of geosciences, Penn State. “It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'”
The Penn State team propose to use specific microorganisms to turn waste directly into edible biomass. And they’re making progress.
At the heart of their work are things called microbial reactors. Microbial reactors are basically vessels designed to maximize surface area for microbes to populate. These types of reactors are used to treat sewage here on Earth, but not to produce an edible biomass.
“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
To test their ideas, the researchers constructed a cylindrical vessel four feet long by four inches in diameter. Inside it, they allowed select microorganisms to come into contact with human waste in controlled conditions. The process was anaerobic, and similar to what happens inside the human digestive tract. What they found was promising.
“Anaerobic digestion is something we use frequently on Earth for treating waste,” said House. “It’s an efficient way of getting mass treated and recycled. What was novel about our work was taking the nutrients out of that stream and intentionally putting them into a microbial reactor to grow food.”
One thing the team discovered is that the process readily produces methane. Methane is highly flammable, so very dangerous on a space mission, but it has other desirable properties when used in food production. It turns out that methane can be used to grow another microbe, called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is used as an animal food. Their conclusion is that the process could produce a nutritious food for astronauts that is 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats.
“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences
The process isn’t simple. The anaerobic process involved can produce pathogens very dangerous to people. To prevent that, the team studied ways to grow microbes in either an alkaline environment or a high-heat environment. After raising the system pH to 11, they found a strain of the bacteria Halomonas desiderata that thrived. Halomonas desiderata is 15 percent protein and 7 percent fats. They also cranked the system up to a pathogen-killing 158 degrees Fahrenheit, and found that the edible Thermus aquaticus grew, which is 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats.
Their system is based on modern aquarium systems, where microbes live on the surface of a filter film. The microbes take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids. Then, those fatty acids are converted to methane by other microbes on the same surface.
Speed is a factor in this system. Existing waste management treatment typically takes several days. The team’s system removed 49 to 59 percent of solids in 13 hours.
This system won’t be in space any time soon. The tests were conducted on individual components, as proof of feasibility. A complete system that functioned together still has to be built. “Each component is quite robust and fast and breaks down waste quickly,” said House. “That’s why this might have potential for future space flight. It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.”
Some of the best things in science are elegant and simple. A new propulsion system being developed in Spain is both those things, and could help solve a growing problem with Earth’s satellites: the proliferation of space junk.
Researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in Spain are patenting a new kind of propulsion system for orbiting satellites that doesn’t use any propellant or consumables. The system is basically a tether, in the form of an aluminum tape a couple kilometers long and a couple inches wide, that trails out from the satellite. The researchers call it a space tie.
“This is a disruptive technology because it allows one to transform orbital energy into electrical energy and vice versa without using any type of consumable”. – Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, UC3M.
The lightweight space tie is rolled up during launch, and once the satellite is in orbit, it’s deployed. Once deployed, the tape can either convert electricity into thrust, or thrust into electricity. The Spanish researchers behind this say that the space-ties will be used in pairs.
The system is based on what is called a “low-work-function” tether. A special coating on the tether has enhanced electron emission properties on receiving sunlight and heat. These special properties allow it to function in two ways. “This is a disruptive technology because it allows one to transform orbital energy into electrical energy and vice versa without using any type of consumable,” said Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Bioengineering and Aerospace Engineering Department at UC3M.
As a satellite loses altitude and gets closer to Earth, the tether converts that thrust-caused-by-gravity into electricity for the spacecraft systems to use. When it comes to orbiting facilities like the International Space Station (ISS), this tether system could solve an annoying problem. Every year the ISS has to burn a significant amount of propellant to maintain its orbit. The tether can generate electricity as it moves closer to Earth, and this electricity could replace the propellant. “With a low- work function tether and the energy provided by the solar panel of the ISS, the atmospheric drag could be compensated without the use of propellant”, said Arriaga.
“Unlike current propulsion technologies, the low-work function tether needs no propellant and it uses natural resources from the space environment such as the geomagnetic field, the ionospheric plasma and the solar radiation.” – Gonzalo Sánchez Arriaga, UC3M.
For satellites with ample on-board power, the tether would operate in reverse. It would use electricity to provide thrust to the space craft. This is especially useful to satellites near the end of their operational life. Rather than languish in orbit for a long time as space junk, the derelict satellite could be forced to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere where it would burn up harmlessly.
The space-tie system is based on what’s called Lorentz drag. Lorentz drag is an electrodynamic effect. (Electrodynamics enthusiasts can read all about it here.) I won’t go too deeply into it because I’m not a physicist, but the Spanish researchers suggest that the Lorentz drag can be easily observed by watching a magnet fall through a copper tube. Here’s a video.
Space organizations have shown interest in the low-work-function tether, and the Spanish team is getting the word out to experts in the USA, Japan, and Europe. The next step is the manufacture of prototypes. “The biggest challenge is its manufacturing because the tether should gather very specific optical and electron emission properties,” says Sánchez Arriaga.
The Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness has awarded the Spanish team a grant to investigate materials for the system. The team has also submitted a proposal to the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET-Open) consortium for funding. “The FET-OPEN project would be foundational because it considers the manufacturing and characterization of the first low-work-function tether and the development of a deorbit kit based on this technology to be tested on a future space mission. If funded, it would be a stepping stone to the future of low-work-function tethers in space” Sanchez Arriaga concluded.
In this video, Gonzalo Sanchez Arriaga explains how the system works. If you don’t speak Spanish, just turn on subtitles.
Back in 2008, I professed my feelings, bared my soul and told all about how I absolutely was in love the International Space Station. Nine and a half years ago when I wrote that article, titled “I ‘Heart’ the ISS: Ten Reasons to Love the International Space Station,” the ISS was still under construction, only three astronauts/cosmonauts at a time could live on board, and scientific research was sparse. Some people routinely questioned the cost and utility of what some people called an expensive erector set or orbiting white elephant.