The Earth’s atmosphere is a total drag, especially if you’re trying to orbit our planet. So how low can you go?
The Earth’s atmosphere is a total drag, especially if you’re trying to orbit our planet. It’s a drag. Get it? Atmospheric drag. Drag. Drag.
Hi, my name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and sometimes my team lets me write my own jokes.
I could have started off this episode with a reference to the “Adama Drop” in-atmosphere viper deployment from BSG, but instead I went with a Dad joke. My punishment is drawing attention to it.
So how low can you go? And if you go low enough, will Ludacris appear in the mirror?
We all appreciate the Earth’s atmosphere and everything it does for you. With all the breathing, and the staying warm and the not having horrible bruises all over your body from teeny space rocks pummeling us.
I’ve got an alternative view. The Earth’s atmosphere is your gilded pressurized oxygenated cage, and it’s the one thing keeping you from flying in space.And as we all know, this is your destiny.
Without the atmosphere, you could easily orbit the Earth, a few kilometers over its surface. Traveling around and around the planet like a person sized Moon. Wouldn’t that be great?
Well, it’s not going to happen. As you walk through the atmosphere, you bonk into all the air molecules. You don’t feel it when you’re moving at walking speed, but go faster, like an airplane, and it’ll rock you like a hurricane.
Without constant thrust pushing against the atmosphere, you’ll keep slowing down, and when you’re trying to orbit the planet, it’s a killer. Our atmosphere is like someone is constantly pushing the brakes on the fly in space party.
If you’ve played Kerbal Space Program, you know the faster you’re traveling, the higher you orbit. Conversely, the slower you travel, the lower you orbit. Travel slow enough and you’ll eat it, and by it, I meant as much planet as you can co-exist with after a high speed impact.
Being more massive means more momentum to push against the atmospheric drag. But with a large surface area, it acts like a parachute, slowing you down.
Hey, I know something that’s super massive with a huge surface area. The International Space Station orbits the planet at an altitude between 330 km and 435 km.
Why such a big range? The atmosphere is constantly pushing against the ISS as it orbits the planet. This slows down the space station’s speed and lowers its orbit. It wouldn’t last more than a couple of years if it wasn’t able to counteract the atmospheric drag.
Fortunately, the station has rockets to increase its speed, and a faster speed means a higher orbit. It can even get assistance from docked spacecraft. If the space station were to go any lower, it would require higher and higher amounts of thrust to prevent re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
So what are the limits? Anything below 160 km altitude will essentially re-enter almost immediately, as it’s buffeted by the thicker atmosphere. You really wouldn’t last more than a few hours at that altitude, but above 800 km you could orbit for more than 100 years.
Geosynchronous satellites that orbit the Earth and transmit our television signals are at an altitude of about 42,000 km. Satellites that high are never coming back down. Well, maybe not never.
Want to enjoy your orbital experience? Make sure you get yourself to an altitude of at least 300 km, 400 km just to be safe. You should shoot for more like 800 km if you just don’t want to worry about things for a while.
Knowing these risks, would you be willing to travel to orbit with current technology? Tell us in the comments below.
An international crew comprising a Russian cosmonaut, a US astronaut and an Italian astronaut who accomplished a record setting flight for time in space by a female, departed the International Space Station (ISS) earlier today, June 11, and safely landed in sunny and warm Kazakhstan tucked inside their Russia Soyuz ferry ship after a successful and extended 199-day mission devoted to science and station upgrades.
The multinational trio comprising Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA, Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) undocked from the orbiting outposts Russian Rassvet module as scheduled in the Soyuz TMA-15M spaceship at 6:20 a.m. EDT while soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Mongolia.
A four-minute 40-second deorbit burn at 8:51 a.m EDT slowed the craft for the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The crew touched down just a few hours after undocking at 9:44 a.m. EDT (7:44 p.m., Kazakh time), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan on the steppes of Kazakhstan, about an hour and a half before sundown in delightfully summer weather. Temperatures today were in the 80s, but they are ‘bone chilling’ in the winter months.
The Progress 59 cargo vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, spun wildly out of control as it separated from the Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket. The freighter and all its 2.5 tons of contents fpr the crew were destroyed during an uncontrolled plummet as its crashed back to Earth on May 8.
The Soyuz/Progress 59 failure had far reaching consequences and resulted in a postponement of virtually all Russian crew and cargo flights to the ISS for the remainder of 2015, as announced this week by Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.
One result is that Cristoforetti now holds the single mission record for a female astronaut, of nearly 200 days.
Expedition 43 was extended by about a month in the wake of the launch failure of the Progress 59 cargo vessel, which quickly cascaded into an extended mission from its originally planned length of about 170 days to 199+ days.
The Soyuz is only certified to stay on orbit for 200 days. So the return home delayed as much as possible to minimize the time when the ISS reverts to only a three person crew – and consequently reduced time for research.
This past weekend on June 6, Cristoforetti surpassed the female astronaut record of 194 days, 18 hours and 2 minutes established by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams on a prior station flight back in 2007.
Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency (ESA), is on her first ever space flight also counts as she also counts as Italy’s first female astronaut.
The station departure and parachute assisted soft landing was shown during a live webcast on NASA TV.
“The landing was on time and on target after over 199 days in space,” said NASA commentator Rob Navius.
“Everything went by the book for an on target touchdown. The crew is safely back on Earth!”
In the final stages of the return to Earth, the Soyuz descent module glided down safely using a single mammoth orange and white parachute, aided by braking rockets in the final moments just a few feet above ground.
The Soyuz landed upright, which eased the extraction of the crew. Russian recovery team members hoisted all three up and out from the cramped capsule.
Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov was hauled up first, followed by Samantha Cristoforetti and finally Terry Virts.
All three crewmembers were healthy and happy, each signaling their elation with a joyous ‘thumbs up.’
After preliminary medical checks, the crew were flown by helicopter to a staging base at Karaganda. From there they split up. Shkaplerov heads back to Moscow and Star City. Cristoforetti and Virts fly to Mission Control in Houston.
During their time aloft, the crew completed several critical spacewalks, technology demonstrations, and hundreds of scientific experiments spanning multiple disciplines, including human and plant biology,” according to NASA.
Among the research experiments conducted were “participation in the demonstration of new, cutting-edge technologies such as the Synthetic Muscle experiment, a test of a new polymer that contracts and expands similar to real muscle. This technology has the potential for future use on robots, enabling them to perform tasks that require considerable dexterity but are too dangerous to be performed by humans in space.”
“The crew engaged in a number of biological studies, including one investigation to better understand the risks of in-flight infections and another studying the effects microgravity has on bone health during long-duration spaceflight. The Micro-5 study used a small roundworm and a microbe that causes food poisoning in humans to study the risk of infectious diseases in space, which is critical for ensuring crew health, safety and performance during long-duration missions. The Osteo-4 study investigated bone loss in space, which has applications not only for astronauts on long-duration missions, but also for people on Earth affected by osteoporosis and other bone disorders.”
Three cargo flights also arrived at the ISS carrying many tons of essential supplies, research equipment, science experiments, gear, spare parts, food, water, clothing.
The resupply freighters included the Russian Progress in February 2015 as well as two SpaceX Dragon cargo ships on the CRS-5 and CRS-6 flights in January and April.
With the return of Virts crew, the new Expedition 44 begins and comprises NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, the two members of the first “ISS 1 Year Mission” as well as cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.
Padalka now assumes command of the station for a record setting fourth time. And he’ll soon be setting another record. In late June, he will break the all time record for cumulative time in space currently held by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev of 803 days on six space flights.
When Padalka returns to Earth around September 10 in the Soyuz TMA-16M ship, that brought the 1 Year crew to the ISS, he will have been in space for a grand total of over 877 days over five flights.
Dragon CRS-7 is now slated for liftoff on June 26. Watch for my onsite reports from KSC.
The Dragon will be carrying critical US equipment, known as the International Docking Adapter (IDA), enabling docking by the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 astronaut transporters – due for first crewed launches in 2017.
Russia and its International Space Station (ISS) partners have prudently decided to postpone the scheduled upcoming crew rotations, involving departures and launches of station crews, in the wake of the failure of the Russian Progress 59 freighter that spun out of control soon after blastoff on April 28 and was destroyed during an uncontrolled plummet back to Earth on Friday, May 8.
The schedule shifting, whose possibility was reported here over the weekend and confirmed on Tuesday, May 12 by NASA and Roscosmos, literally came barely a day before the planned return to Earth on Wednesday, May 13 of the three person crew comprising of NASA astronaut and current station commander Terry Virts and flight engineers Samantha Cristoforetti of ESA (European Space Agency) and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos. The trio have been working and living aboard the complex since November 2014.
The return of Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov is now targeted for early June, according to official statements from NASA, ESA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. That’s about a month later than the originally planned 171 day mission, in the wake of the failed Progress cargo ship that burned up on reentry.
Although an exact date has not been specified, sources indicate a tentative return target of around June 11.
“The partner agencies agreed to adjust the schedule after hearing the Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) preliminary findings on the recent loss of the Progress 59 cargo craft,” said NASA in a statement. “The exact dates have not yet been established, but will be announced in the coming weeks.”
If that new return date holds, ESA’s Samantha Cristoforetti will become the woman to fly the longest in space, eclipsing the current record holder, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.
Blastoff of their replacement crew on the next planned manned Soyuz launch on May 26 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has also been delayed, for about two months most likely to late July. That Expedition 44 crew comprises Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui and NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren.
A rotating international crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts currently serve aboard the ISS. The delayed return of Virts crew from Expedition 43 will lessen the time when the ISS is staffed by a reduced crew of three, which significantly dampens the time allotted to science research.
A Russian state commission investigation board appointed by Roscosmos, is still seeking to determine the cause of the Progress 59 malfunction which occurred right around the time of the separation from its Soyuz-2.1A carrier rockets third stage following blastoff from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan.
A preliminary accident report from the state commission was planned for May 13. But investigators need more time to determine the root cause of the Progress 59 (also known as Progress M-27M) mishap.
Soon after detaching from the rockets third stage, it began to spin out of control at about 1.8 times per second, as seen in a video transmitted from the doomed ship.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka will remain aboard the station after the Virts crew returns to begin Expedition 44.
Roscosmos is also working to speed up the launch of the next unmanned Progress 60 (M-28M), potentially from August to early July. But that hinges on the outcome of the state commission investigation.
The 7 ton Progress vehicle was loaded with 2.5 tons of supplies for the ISS and the six person Expedition 43 crew. Items included personal mail for the crew, scientific equipment, food, water, oxygen, gear and replaceable parts for the station’s life support systems.
NASA officials say that the current ISS Expedition 43 six person crew is in no danger. The station has sufficient supplies to last until at least the fall of 2015, even if no other supplies arrive in the meantime.
Also in the mix is the launch of NASA’s next contracted unmanned Dragon cargo mission by commercial provider SpaceX on the CRS-7 flight. Dragon CRS-7 had been slated for liftoff no earlier than June 19. But that date could slip as well.
The Dragon will carry critical US equipment enabling docking by the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 astronaut transporters.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
An actuator that was “behaving strangely” on the SpaceX Falcon 9’s upper stage caused a last minute scrub for Tuesday’s attempt to launch a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, as well as the first try at an historic first stage landing on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
Need to investigate the upper stage Z actuator. Was behaving strangely. Next launch attempt on Friday at 5am.
SpaceX will try again on Friday, January 9, 2014 at 5:09 a.m. EST. Like today’s attempt, there will be only an instantaneous launch window available, meaning that the blastoff must proceed at that exact instant. Any delays due to technical issues or weather would force further delays.
This is the commercial space company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS and the unmanned cargo freighter is loaded with more than 5,108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear for the space station.
The “experiment” that has attracted the most attention, however, is the attempt to land the first stage of the two-stage rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 320 km (200 miles) off the coast of Florida.
This is the first attempt at such a landing. SpaceX has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land, and done several touchdowns on the ocean’s surface.
Elon Musk has estimated the odds of success at the landing attempt at about 50% at best.
“It’s an experiment,” said Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, speaking at a media briefing on Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Space Center. “There’s a certain likelihood that this will not work out right, that something will go wrong.” He also added that the landing on the off shore barge is just a secondary objective of SpaceX, not NASA.
Or perhaps I should say “eine grosse Aurora!” ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst made this time-lapse of a “massive aurora” as seen from the Space Station on August 24. The entire video is beautiful, showing not just a view of the ghostly green aurora but also plenty of stars, airglow, the graceful rotation of the ISS’ solar arrays, and finally the blooming light of dawn – one of sixteen the crew of the Station get to witness every day.
Then again, I’m now wondering: what is the mass of an aurora? Hmm…
“Bangkok is the bright city. The green lights outside the city? No idea…” This was the description accompanying the photo above, perplexingly Tweeted by Expedition 40/41 astronaut Reid Wiseman on Aug. 18, 2014. And while we’ve all seen fascinating photos of our planet shared by ISS crew members over the years this one is quite interesting, to say the least. Yes, there’s the bright illumination of Bangkok’s city lights, along with some stars, moonlit cloud cover extending northeast and the fine line of airglow over the horizon, but what are those acid-green blotches scattered throughout the darkness of the Gulf of Thailand? Bioluminescent algal blooms? Secret gamma-ray test labs? Underwater alien bases?
The answer, it turns out, actually is quite fishy.
The offshore illumination comes from fishing boats, which use enormous arrays of bright green LED lights to attract squid and plankton to the surface.
According to an an Oct. 2013 article on NASA’s Earth Observatory site by Michael Carlowicz, “…fishermen from South America and Southeastern Asia light up the ocean with powerful lamps that attract the plankton and fish species that the squid feed on. The squid follow their prey toward the surface, where they are easier for fishermen to catch with jigging lines. Squid boats can carry more than a hundred of these lamps, generating as much as 300 kilowatts of light per boat.”
Seen from orbit, the lights from squid fishing fleets rival the glow of the big cities! What might this look like from sea level? According to photos shared by one travel blogger in 2013, this.
Watch a video time-lapse from an ISS pass over the same region on Jan. 30, 2014.
In what could become the world’s first orbiting salad bar, NASA’s Veggie experiment was initiated on May 8 after a successful (if slightly delayed) launch to the Space Station on Friday, April 18 aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. In development for several years, the LED-powered plant growth experiment is finally getting the chance to put down its roots.
After receiving the experiment on Sunday, April 20, Expedition 39 astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson installed the Veg-01 unit inside ESA’s Columbus module on May 7. The next day Veg-01 was turned on, with a root mat and six small pillows containing “Outredgeous” romaine lettuce seeds within a special fertilized clay inserted inside its collapsible Teflon bellows.
The lettuce plants are scheduled to grow for 28 days, during which time they will be periodically photographed, watered, and tested for any microbial growth. The pillows will be thinned down to one plant each, and after the experiment is over the remaining lettuce leaves will be harvested and frozen to be returned to Earth aboard another Dragon capsule later this year. There they’ll be tested and compared with the results of an identical Veggie experiment that’s being conducted at the same time at Kennedy Space Center.
If all goes well, the lettuce will be found to be safe for astronauts to eat. While they await the results, the next experiment can be started.
“My hopes are that Veggie will eventually enable the crew to regularly grow and consume fresh vegetables,” said Dr. Gioia Massa, the NASA science team lead for Veggie.
In addition to providing healthy food, having living plants to care for could be therapeutic for astronauts on long-duration missions in low-Earth orbit and beyond. (Let’s just hope it doesn’t one day end up like Silent Running!)
NASA announced today that the Obama administration has approved NASA’s request for an extension of operations for the International Space Station for an additional four years to 2024. This means work on board the orbiting laboratory will continue at least for another decade.
“I think this is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, speaking during a press briefing today, “ and also for all of human spaceflight and for our international partnership.”
“This is a tremendous gift the administration has given us,” he added later.
Gerstenmaier said the extension allows NASA to expand their planning horizons, and it will change the way scientists and commercial companies look at their “investment” in the future of the ISS.
“We’re starting to see a lot of science benefits on ISS that have a lot of applications here on Earth, such as pharmaceuticals, materials processing, and climate change equipment, and operating until least 2024 opens up a large avenue of research on the ISS,” he said. “This also changes the perspective for commercial providers … as the commercial sector now has a larger market to carry cargo to space for NASA, as well as crew.”
Commercial Spaceflight Federation president and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria agreed. “The International Space Station is the crown jewel of NASA’s human spaceflight program,” he said in a statement. “This extension comes at a critical time and paves the way for the ISS to fulfill its extensive and multifaceted potential – as a research lab that will provide countless benefits here on Earth, as an anchor destination for America’s commercial space race and as a jumping off point for deep space technology development and exploration.”
Gerstenmaier also sees the ISS as a proving ground for future human spaceflight plans to head out to deep space. “NASA doesn’t think of ISS and deep space human plans as separate, but as a combined strategy,” he said.
A recent review of ISS modules and equipment ensured that the station could likely last until 2028, and Gerstenmaier said this new extension allows operations to be at least considered until nearly 2030.
“Ten years from today is a far-reaching vision,” he said. “Our international partners are well aware of this extension and they were involved in hardware studies to see if station operations could extend. They will continue to evaluate their hardware and they all see this as a positive step in moving forward. … This is truly an international endeavor and we all work together.”
Gerstenmeier added that it’s not immediately clear whether all of the 15 nations involved in the ISS along with the US will continue to participate for the duration of the life of the ISS, but that NASA is prepared to work with whatever plans the international partnership evolves into over time.
He said that no additional funding for the ISS was currently required for the extension, as the basic budget now covers the ISS to at least 2020, and the funds set aside for eventually deorbiting the ISS will be shifted towards operations.
Additional funding will likely be required at some point, however, but well past when the current Administration and Congress will be obligated to decide.
It’s actually remarkably beautiful, and well worth two minutes of your time.*
Assembled from actual photographs taken by astronauts aboard the Space Station, many of them by Don Pettit during Expedition 31 (Don took a lot of photos) this timelapse “The World Outside My Window” by David Peterson ramps up the artistic value by featuring super-duper high definition, smoothed frame transitions and a musical score by “Two Steps From Hell.” (Don’t worry, that sounds scarier than it is.) Even if you’ve seen some of these clips before, they’re worth another go.
After all, there’s no good reason not to be reminded of how beautiful our planet is from space. Enjoy!
*It’s actually two minutes and twenty-eight seconds but I don’t think you’ll mind.