Traveling the Solar System with Pulsar Navigation

A pulsar with its magnetic field lines illustrated. The beams emitting from the poles are what washes over our detectors as the dead star spins.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found a way for travelers through the Solar System to work out exactly where they are, without needing help from ground-based observers on Earth. They have refined the pulsar navigation technique, which uses X-ray signals from distant pulsars, in a way similar to how GPS uses signals from a constellation of specialized satellites, to calculate an exact position .

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Crew-4 is off to the Station

Name someone who at some point in their life didn’t want to be an astronaut. The answer is no one. Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and they all say an astronaut. Being an astronaut is the ultimate dream job for everyone of all ages. Why? Because you get to go to space, and there’s nothing cooler than going into space. For context, even if you’re not a sports fan you have watched the Super Bowl at least once in your life. It is one of the most watched and most lauded sports championship games in the entire world, and yet despite all its media attention and halftime shows and all-time great finishes, the Super Bowl still holds a candle to being able to go to space. Eat your heart out, Tom Brady. Going into space is just awesome, and there’s nothing like it.

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Space Flight Destroys Your Red Blood Cells

Flight Engineer Anne McClain in the cupola holding biomedical gear for MARROW. Credit: NASA

It’s really true: space wants to kill us. And this time, space is trying to kill us from the inside out.

A new study on astronauts living on board the International Space Station shows that while in space, the astronauts’ bodies destroyed 54 percent more red blood cells than they normally would on Earth. Even one year after their flight and back on Earth, the symptoms of “space anemia” persisted in the 14 astronauts tested.

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Since There’s no Up or Down in Space, How do our Brains Deal With This?

Group portrait of the seven astronauts and cosmonauts on board the ISS on January 13, 2021. Credit: NASA/Mike Hopkins..

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.

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Europe is Working On a Reusable Space Transport System: Space Rider

The ESA is developing a reusable spacecraft called the Space Rider. Image Credit: ESA-Jacky Huart

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.

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Planetary Society’s Light Sail 2 is Set to Launch on a Falcon Heavy Rocket Next Month

An illustration of the Light Sail 2 craft with its solar sails deployed. Image Credit: Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

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.

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard Flies Again, a Week Before Their Mysterious Announcement

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.

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Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria has been Found on the Space Station’s Toilet

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

NASA keeps a close eye on the bacteria inhabiting the International Space Station with a program called the Microbial Observatory (M.O.) The ISS is home to a variety of microbes, some of which pose a threat to the health of astronauts. As part of their monitoring, the M.O. has discovered antibiotic resistant bacteria on the toilet seat on the ISS.
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Launching Rockets from Balloons is About to be a Thing, But We Need a Better Name than “Rockoons”

Leo Aerospace plans to use “rockoons” (high-altitude balloons) that left rockets about 11 miles (18 kilometers) above Earth, where there is 95 percent less atmosphere to cause drag. That makes the rockoon less expensive to launch than a traditional rocket. The system works only for microsatellites. Image: Leo Aerospace.

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.

Leo Aerospace LLC was started by five then-Purdue University students as a club and then turned into a business. The founders are, from left, Mike Hepfer, head of product development; Drew Sherman, head of vehicle development; Abishek Murali, head of mission engineering; Dane Rudy; chief executive officer; and Bryce Prior, head of operations and strategy. Image: Leo Aerospace.

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.”

Special Skinsuits Could Help Astronauts Avoid Back Pain When Their Spines Expand In Space

The microgravity in space makes astronauts' spines grow, and causes back pain. A new SkinSuit being developed by the ESA is helping. This image shows student test subjects wearing the suit. Image: Kings College London, Centre for Human Aerospace Physiological Sciences

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.

ESA astronauts have tested the SkinSuit both in weightless parabolic flights, and on-board the ISS. Image: CNES/Novespace, 2014

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.

The SkinSuit has evolved through several designs to make it more wearable, comfortable, and effective. Image: Kings College London/Philip Carvill

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.”