Launching Rockets from Balloons is About to be a Thing, But We Need a Better Name than “Rockoons”

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 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.”

Microbes May Help Astronauts Turn Human Waste Into Food

Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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.

SpaceX's reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017.  Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX’s reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

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've always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist's illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC
We’ve always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist’s illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC

“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.

Conventional waste treatment plants, like this one in England, take several days to treat waste. The anerobic system tested by the Penn State team treated waste in as little as 13 hours. Image: Nick Allen, CC BY-SA 4.0

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.”

The team’s paper was published here, in the journal Life Sciences In Space Research.

A New Kind of Propulsion System That Doesn’t Need Propellant. It Converts Electricity into Thrust and Vice Versa.

The proposed "space-tie" propulsion system being patented by Spanish scientists could be useful on Satellites like the ESA's Sentinel-1, pictured. Image: ESA/ATG

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.

I Still ♥ the ISS: More Reasons to Love the International Space Station

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.

But now, construction has been complete for several years, six crew members are usually aboard, and there are three fully outfitted laboratory modules that contain fourteen internal research facilities and twelve facilities outside the station. The ISS is the largest, most complex international engineering project in history, built by fifteen countries around the world. They had to – and continue to — work across differences in language, units of measure and political agendas.

A timelapse photo taken by Don Pettit on the International Space Station. Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

The ISS is an engineering and technical marvel for not only its nearly flawless construction — every piece fit together perfectly — but also for its relatively trouble-free operation. It’s become a certified US National Laboratory, conducting ground-breaking research across multiple disciplines. It serves as a unique educational and inspirational platform for people around the world.

But one thing has not changed: I still love the ISS. And today, as we celebrate 17 years of humans continuously living and working off our home planet, here are ten more reasons to love the ISS:

Seen here on a spacewalk in March 2017, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for most spacewalks conducted by a female astronaut. Credits: NASA

1. The Humans: The astronauts and cosmonauts on board the ISS put the ‘human’ in human spaceflight. They can do the science, make the observations and share the experience unlike any robotic mission. The personalities of each crew give a unique flavor to each Expedition (we’re currently up to Expedition #53). While astronauts like Chris Hadfield, Peggy Whitson and Scott Kelly have become uber-famous for their unique stints aboard the ISS, over 200 humans have visited and over 100 people from 10 different countries have lived and worked on board. As of today, there has been a cumulative consecutive 6,210 days of humans in orbit on the ISS.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata plays around wiith humanoid robot Robonaut 2 during Expedition 39 in March 2014. Credit: NASA

2. Robots: Oh yes, we’ve got robots on board too! Robonaut is human-shaped robot working towards taking over simple human tasks like flipping switches and other maintenance, SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) are like Jedi training spheres that are testing several different space technologies; Japan’s super-cute JEM Internal Ball Camera can monitor space station activities and functions.

JAXA’s JEM Internal Ball Camera, or “Int-Ball” for short, floats while taking a video, July 2017. Credit: NASA.

Canadarm 2 is a 17.6 meter (57.7 feet) -long robotic arm on the station’s exterior that was instrumental in building the ISS; it can handle large payloads and is now used to dock visiting resupply ships. Dextre is Canada’s large robot that’s been described as a “robotic handyman” that does work outside the space station. Next year a new robot called Astrobee will come on board; it’s a cube-shaped robot packed with sensors, cameras, computers, and a propulsion system and is designed to help astronauts around the ISS with a variety of tasks. All these robots will help lead us to real versions of R2D2, C3PO and BB-8.

In November 2014, NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore installed a 3-D printer made by Made in Space in the Columbus laboratory’s Microgravity Science Glovebox on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

3. There’s a 3-D printer on board: 3-D printing has taken off on Earth for all sorts of applications and the 3-D printer on the ISS could help pave the way for future long-term space expeditions. The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) from the company Made In Space has printed tools for use on the station, and NASA is even looking at printing food in space. It’s the first version of the Star Trek replicator, and can help solve the logistics problem of having spares for every single nut and bolt, enabling repairs and being able to solve unanticipated problems in space where there are no hardware stores.

4. Science! Hundreds of experiments conducted on board the ISS have changed science both off and on our world. Experiments include fields as diverse as microbiology, space science, fundamental physics, astronomy, meteorology and Earth observation to name a few. Every week, I receive a detailed email from the ISS Program Science Office, explaining the diverse experiments and unique results from research in space. Like on Earth, not all research in space is headline-making and world changing, and science takes time. As Peggy Whitson said, “like research on the ground, it takes many years to get a final answer but each step is important.”

The continued research on the ISS is producing unique science results, space technology spinoffs, and other technologies that are saving lives around the world. Studies have allowed for advances in water monitoring and filtering, fire prevention, particle and colloidal studies, and nanomaterials that are providing innovations in industry.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) manages the ISS National Lab, and they have has partnered with academic researchers, government organizations, startups and major commercial companies to take advantage of the unique microgravity lab.

Big experiments include the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that is looking for dark matter, and antimatter and cosmic rays; and the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is an experimental instrument set to launch next year that will create extremely cold conditions in the microgravity environment of the ISS leading to the formation of Bose Einstein Condensates that are a magnitude colder than those that are created in laboratories on Earth.

Building the ISS itself has led to advances in engineering and all the activities on board enhance our ability to explore space and one day set off on journeys that will take humans out into the solar system.

Here’s a video that explains in detail some of the top research results from the ISS:

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins not only became the first person to sequence DNA in space, but the sequenced more than a billion bases during her time aboard the space station. Credits: NASA

5. More science, for the betterment of humanity’s health. One of the main areas of focus is life sciences. Studying the effects of microgravity on astronauts provides insight into human physiology, and how it evolves or erodes in space, and those studies can be used directly to help solve medical problems here on Earth. Investigations have been aimed at studying cancer cells, bone density and osteoporosis, heart disease, eye sight issues, as well as and examining ways to enhance pharmaceuticals.

Last year, DNA was successfully sequenced aboard the ISS, and this opens a whole new world of scientific and medical possibilities. Scientists consider it a game changer.

Expedition 24’s Tracy Caldwell Dyson gazes out of the cupola. Credit: NASA

6. The Cupola and orbital perspective. Seeing Earth from space can be life changing, and even just seeing the incredible pictures and videos from the ISS astronauts can give us the big picture and a long-term view of our world that we can’t get otherwise. Books like Frank White’s “The Overview Effect” and ISS astronaut Ron Garan’s “The Orbital Perspective” have talked in detail about the impact of seeing our world as a whole, and how it can show us, as Garan said, “both the good and bad of our daily decisions, words, and actions.”

Additionally, Earth observations can help in studying climate and and Earth’s physical, biological and chemical systems.

Also, you can see that the Earth is not flat.

You can watch live views of the Earth from the ISS with ISS HD Viewing Experiment Camera here.

7. International cooperation. This is one of the benefits of space exploration: people from different countries and faiths can learn to live together in peace and harmony. While space exploration started as more of a competition, as NASA historian Steven J. Dick has said, “political and funding realities have now shifted the balance toward cooperation.”

The ISS is the result of unprecedented scientific and engineering collaboration among five space agencies. I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in 2008: In a world where violence and political animosity floods the daily news, it’s incredible that this structure in space was quietly built by 15 different countries working together in relative harmony. If not for the international partners, the ISS probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said, adding that that the station’s most enduring legacy is the international partnership that created it.

“Space is without borders, we fly to an international space station where we do experiments that come back to Earth and benefit all of us — they benefit all humankind,” said German ISS astronaut Alexander Gerst.

8. Longevity: The ISS is an incredible feat of engineering, and its 15 pressurized modules and many other components are working so well in space that the goalposts for station’s life has been extended several times. 2028 is that latest estimate and goal for how long the ISS will be operational. It won’t last forever, though, as some components have been in space since 1998. It took a dozen years and more than 30 missions to assemble. It is the result of unprecedented scientific and engineering collaboration.

A montage of 31 images taken in less than a second as the International Space Station transits the Sun and a solar prominence. Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault.

9. You can see it for yourself, and its brighter than ever. One of the most amazing things about the ISS is that you can watch it orbit over your backyard. This 460-ton, football-field-size permanently crewed platform orbits 240 miles above Earth, going around every 90 minutes. I still see people’s jaws drop and eyes widen in wonder when they see for the first time, as it glides silently and swiftly across the night or early morning sky. I never tire of observing it. Find out when the station will fly over your backyard at NASA’s Spot the Station website or at the Heaven’s Above website.

10. Construction is complete. We did it. We built this incredible structure in space, together. Yes, it was expensive, about $100 billion. But it was ambitious, audacious and unprecedented and it has been an unequivocal success. It will lead us to the future of space exploration, hopefully extending and protecting life on Earth. It’s an international mission that is truly for all humankind.

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.

What’s the Difference Between a Rocket and Space Plane? Amazing Hand-Drawn Animations Explain It All

You gotta love Earth’s atmosphere. It basically makes life (as we know it) possible on our planet by providing warmth and air to breathe, as well as protecting us from nasty space things like radiation and smaller asteroids. But for studying space (i.e., astronomy) or coming back to Earth from space, the atmosphere is a pain.

Last year, we introduced you to freelance animator and storyboard artist Stanley VonMedvey, who started creating short, hand-drawn videos to explain a complex topic: how spacecraft work. These videos are wonderfully concise, clear and easy to understand. Plus Stan’s hand-drawn animations are incredible.

His series, “Stan Draws Spaceships” now has a new video that shows the complexities of how spacecraft return to Earth through our atmosphere, comparing the partially reusable Falcon 9 and fully reusable Skylon. Take a look below. Again, the hand-drawn animations are impeccable and Stan’s explanations are just captivating.

I was trying to think of sufficient accolades for Stan’s work, but I can’t do any better than one commentor on Stan’s YouTube Channel. MarsLettuce said, “The attention to detail here is insane. The air intake being shorn off by drag was especially great. The sequence of her hands making the paper plane was subdued, but it added a lot. The characters were really well done, too. I love the reaction of Stan being hit by the paper airplane. It’s hilarious.”

Stan’s earlier videos explain expendable launch vehicles and the space shuttle.

He describes himself as “completely obsessed with and fascinated by space exploration,” and he wants to share what he’s learned over the years about spaceflight.

Stan would like the opportunity and resources to make more videos, and has started a Patreon page to help in this process. Right now, he creates the videos on his own (he told us he uses the time-honored home-recording technique of draping a blanket over his head) in his home office. It takes him roughly 2.5 months to produce a 5 minute episode.

“I’d like to make a lot more videos,” he writes on Patreon, “explaining things like Hohmman transfers and laser propulsion and the construction techniques of O’Neill cylinders. I want to make long form videos (2-3 minutes) that explain a general idea, and short form videos (30 seconds) that cover a single word, like “ballistics” or “reaction control.”

An artist’s conception of Reaction Engines’ Skylon spacecraft. Credit: Reaction Engines

So, check out Stan’s videos and his Patreon page. If you’d like to see more, consider supporting his work. See more of his drawings at his website.

Stephen Hawking Is Going To The Edge Of Space

Stephen Hawking has spent decades theorizing about the Universe. His thinking on black holes, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and a long list of other topics, has helped shape our understanding of the cosmos. Now it looks like the man who has spent most of his adult life bound to a wheel-chair will travel to the edge of space.

In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Hawking said “Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.” Hawking added that his “three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space.”

Stephen Hawking is one of the premier physicists and theorists of our time. Here he is being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

It’s all thanks to Richard Branson and his VSS Unity spaceship, which is still under development by The Spaceship Company. The Unity is designed to launch not from a rocket pad, but from underneath a carrier aircraft. By eliminating enormously expensive rocket launches from the whole endeavour, Branson hopes to make space more accessible to more people.

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) over the Mojave Desert on 3rd, December 2016. Image: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then released from its carrier aircraft. Its rocket fires for about 1 minute, which accelerates the craft to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, then is shut off. Then, according to Virgin Galactic, passengers will experience a “dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness.”

As the video shows, the spacecraft is still in glide testing phase, where it is carried to altitude, then released. There is no rocket burn, and the craft glides down and lands at its base.

This spaceflight won’t be Hawking’s first experience with weightlessness, however. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Hawking travelled on board Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. At the time, that zero-g flight was in preparation for a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic in 2009. But the development of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft has suffered setbacks, and the 2009 date was not attainable.

Hawking has experienced zero gravity before, when he flew on Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. Image: By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144

Virgin Galactic’s stated aim is to “democratize space,” albeit at a cost of US $250,000 per person. But somehow I doubt that Hawking will be paying. If anyone has earned a free trip into space, it is Dr. Stephen Hawking.

NASA Twins Study Researchers Take Genetic Data To Next Level

People who plan and conduct space missions never tire of telling us how hard it is to do things in space.

Our next big goal is getting humans to Mars, and establishing a colony there. There are a multitude of technical and engineering hurdles to be overcome, but we think we can do it.

But the other side of the coin is the physiological hurdles to be overcome. Those may prove to be much more challenging to deal with. NASA’s twins study is poised to add an enormous amount of data to our growing body of knowledge on the effects of space travel on human beings.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

Astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly are the basis of NASA’s study. Scott spent a year in space, returning to Earth on March 1st 2016, after spending 340 days aboard the ISS. Mark, himself a retired astronaut, remained on Earth during Scott’s year in space, providing a baseline for studying the effects on the human body of such a prolonged period of time away from Earth.

In February of 2016, NASA released preliminary results of the study. Now, the team studying the results of the twins study has started integrating the data. The way they’re doing this sets it apart from other studies.

“No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail.” – Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine.

Typically, individual studies are released to appropriate journals more or less one at a time. But in the twins study, the data will be integrated and summarized before individual papers are published on separate themes. The idea is that taken together, their impact on our understanding of prolonged time in space will be much greater.

“The beauty of this study is when integrating rich data sets of physiological, neurobehavioral and molecular information, one can draw correlations and see patterns,” said Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, who is creating the integrated database, recording results and looking for correlations. “No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail. Most researchers combine maybe two to three types of data but this study is one of the few that is collecting many different types of data and an unprecedented amount of information.”

“Each investigation within the study complements the other.” – Brinda Rana, Ph.D., U of C, San Diego School of Medicine

Mike Snyder, Ph.D, is the head of a team of people at Stanford that will work to synthesize the data. There are roughly three steps in the overall process:

  1. Individual researchers in areas like cognition, biochemistry, and immunology will analyze and compile their data then share their results with the Stanford team.
  2. The Stanford team will then further integrate those results into larger data sets.
  3. Those larger data sets will then be reviewed and analyzed to confirm and modify the initial findings.

“There are a lot of firsts with this study and that makes it exciting,” said Brinda Rana, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “A comparative study with one twin in space and one on Earth has never been done before. Each investigation within the study complements the other.”

NASA compares the twins study, and the new integrated method of handling all the results, to conducting a symphony. Each study is like an instrument, and instead of each one playing a solo, they will be added into a greater whole. The team at Stanford is like the conductor. If you’ve ever listened to an orchestra, you know how powerful that can be.

“The human systems in the body are all intertwined which is why we should view the data in a holistic way,” said Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., NASA manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. He conducts biochemical profiles on astronauts and his research is targeted to specific metabolites, end products of various biological pathways and processes.

“It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.” – Chris Mason, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Physiology and Biophysics Weill Cornell Medicine

Chris Mason Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medicine said, “Both the universe and the human body are complicated systems and we are studying something hard to see. It’s like having a new flashlight that illuminates the previously dark gears of molecular interactions. It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.”

Scientists involved with the twins study are very clearly excited about this new approach. Having twin astronauts is an extraordinary opportunity, and will advance our understanding of spaceflight on human physiology enormously.

“There is no doubt, the learnings from integrating our data will be priceless,” said Emmanuel Mignot, M.D., Ph.D., director of Center for Sleep Science and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. He studies the immune system and is enthusiastic to study specific immune cell populations because many of the other immune studies focus only on general factors.

A summary of the early results should be out by early 2018, or possible late 2017. Individual papers on more detailed themes will follow shortly.

New ‘Selfie’ MicroSatellite Captures Images of Chinese Space Station

Here’s a great new view of China’s Tiangong II space station, taken by a new ‘selfie’ satellite. The Banxing-2 satellite is about the size of a desktop printer and was released from the station on Sunday. It has been nicknamed the “Selfie Stick” by Chinese officials and is taking pictures of the station and the docked Shenzhou XI spacecraft. The Chinese astronauts who boarded the station last week aren’t just joining the selfie craze; the 25 megapixel camera with wide-angle and infrared imagers has a specific job.

“The companion satellite monitors the conditions of Tiangong II and Shenzhou XI all the time, which is helpful in detecting failures,” said Chen Hongyu, chief engineer of the satellite program and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Micro-satellite Innovation Institute.

The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.
The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.

The microsatellite as three solar panels, so can generate enough power to adjust its orbit to shoot pictures of the lab and spacecraft. Its predecessor, Banxing-1, accomplished the same mission for Shenzhou VII in 2008. The Chinese Academy of Sciences says the new model is smaller and has a higher capacity.

Now well into their 30-day mission, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong boarded China’s second version of its “Heavenly Palace” last week. They launched Monday, October 17 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on a Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou-11 completed a fully automated approach and docking to Tiangong-2 on Tuesday.

During their mission, the two crew members will perform experiments from 14 different areas including biology, space life science and technological demonstrations. They have set up plant cultivation and growing experiments and have six silkworms on board for a student-based study to see how silkworms produce silk in microgravity. The crew is also doing medical testing on themselves using Tiangong II’s on board ultrasound equipment to scan their cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. They’ll also be checking for bone and muscle degradation and track any changes to their eyesight. NASA and ESA has discovered that the majority of astronauts doing long-duration space flights on the International Space Station have suffered various kinds of vision problems while in space, or upon their return.

This 30-day medium duration mission is China’s longest space mission to date, and the main task of the Tiangong crew is to help prepare for longer future missions on a larger, modular space station that, according to reports, China hopes to launch by 2018.

Further reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, Spaceflight 101.