Monday, May 28, 2012

Made in China

Here's something I didn't know: China has launched a prototype space station, and plans to send three astronauts up for an extended stay sometime between June and August of this year.

The Tiangong 1 Space Laboratory Module has been in LEO since September 2011, and has already been visited by the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in November 2011, which demonstrated docking ability and other maneuvers. The Tiangong 1 will be de-orbited in 2013 and replaced with Tiangong 2 and 3 in preparation for deployment of the more permanent Chinese Space Station (CSS) in 2020.

The purpose of the space station is to act as a zero-G laboratory for science experiments, and as an eventual refueling station for manned deep space exploration missions.

Here is a hilarious Chinese propaganda-y animation depicting the mission:

I especially like the shot at the 1:00 minute mark of two astronauts hanging out in their space suits inside an empty module while a third seems to be skipping joyfully around on a casual, untethered space walk. Even more funny than the video is the fact that the Chinese Space Agency originally released a similar animation with "America the Beautiful" mysteriously playing in the background. No explanation was given for what can only be assumed to be an unfortunate gaffe - or an ingenious prank by some pro-American CCTV intern who may or may not still have his job - but the video remains up on the CCTV website, with the soundtrack removed.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Can Constellation Rise from the Ashes?

Back in 2010 the Obama administration canceled Constellation, Bush's space program that would have sent US astronauts back to the moon, and eventually to Mars and beyond. I do not agree with President Bush on very much, but his ambition and vision for NASA was laudable, and I was sad when they cancelled Constellation. Despite being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies” according to the White House's budget plan, Constellation did provide an exciting and inspiring goal: Mars. The same cannot be said of Obama's replacement plan to focus on "building block technologies" and eventually send US astronauts to an asteroid. The goal is not nearly as romantic, and half the US population thinks it has already been accomplished. Moreover, with the recent explosion of Planetary Resources onto the public stage, we now see that there are market forces sufficient to propel private sector missions to asteroids; the same cannot be said of missions to Mars. In this new age of privatized space, NASA's main goal should be to fund innovative research and missions that would not otherwise be funded due to a lack of immediate profitabilityBut I digress. 

The Liberty launch vehicle combines the proven systems from NASA's space shuttle fleet and 
Europe's Ariane 5 expendable rocket. This graphic shows how they combine into the new 
ATK-Astrium Liberty rocket. CREDIT: ATK
It now seems that Constellation might just make like a Phoenix and rise from the congressional ashes. Development of the Orion Crew Module, which would have carried astronauts to Mars, has continued under the new title of "Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle" (MPCV) since program cancellation. And now it looks like the heavy-lift vehicle, (née Ares 1), which would have propelled Orion into space, is not completely dead either. On May 9th, Alliant Techystems (better known as ATK) announced plans to combine the first stage of the Ares 1, a five-stage solid rocket booster, with the second stage of the European Space Agency's Ariane V rocket, which has been in use since '96, to make the "Liberty Rocket". These rocket stages would be topped with ATK's own Orion spinoff, with a composite structure and less robust heat shield than the metal Orion system since ATK's version would only be reentering the atmosphere from LEO instead of deep space and thus have half the energy to dissipate upon reentry. ATK plans to develop the Liberty Rocket system into a full-fledged commercial enterprise, carrying crew and cargo into low earth orbit for both NASA and other commercial space venture companies. ATK thinks it can move quickly through development and testing since the first two rocket stages have already been tested thoroughly. They hope to launch their first test flight by 2015.

I'm glad to see that the billions of dollars and thousands of hours of hard work already poured into Orion and Ares may not have been for naught, but I have reservations about the frankenstein nature of Liberty. Rand Simberg, in a great summary of the program, pointed out that using the Ariane V as a second stage (rather than as a first stage, as it has been used by the ESA) will mean coordinating in-flight ignition of the very complex combustion engine. The difficulty of pulling this off is one of the reasons that the Space Shuttle's SSME was abandoned by NASA's Constellation team for the J2-X. 

I also can't imagine that integrating 3 different rocket stages, built by three different companies, will yield an elegant, cost-effective, or scalable result. The Ariane 5 brings 15 years of ESA heritage technology with it, the Ares rocket undoubtedly possesses the marks of 60+ years of NASA history, and the Orion capsule is being developed by Lockheed Martin, which has its own hefty share of heritage. The plan greatly undervalues the benefits of in-house design. SpaceX, for example, built their entire system (rocket and capsule) from scratch in-house. The mechanical engineers building the Falcon engines eat lunch with the electrical engineers designing the Dragon capsule and the systems engineers building the operational plans (I saw this with my own eyes when I visited SpaceX headquarters in 2010). While an ATK systems engineer will have three sets of clumsy and likely incomplete documentation to sift through, and none of the original designers to help with the task, a SpaceX engineer who wants to know why something was built a certain way merely has to find the person who designed it and ask. ATK's kludged-together rocket might be cheap and fast now, but I doubt that it will be scalable or easily updated in the long-term. 

In any case, it is likely that Liberty - which will require support from the Ares team - will receive support from members of Congress who championed Constellation and would like to see those jobs return to their districts. It will be interesting to see how Liberty changes course once it enters the political sphere.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The New Space Race

The AP had a great article by Seth Borenstein recently about the New Space Race, highlighting all of the companies currently working on programs to shuttle cargo and/or people to space. This, of course, is old news, but it's great to see the industry finally getting some serious attention from the press now that SpaceX is doing things for NASA that are useful (and least eventually). A couple eye-opening excerpts:

"There are now more companies looking to make money in orbit — at least eight — than major U.S. airlines still flying."

"There are already eight different licensed spaceports in the U.S. where companies can launch from and most of them have no connection to NASA."

Of the companies mentioned by Borenstein, five (SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin) have received money from NASA and are aiming to reach the ISS within the next 5 years. Orbital is the closest behind SpaceX, with a trip to the ISS scheduled for November.

XCor's "Rocket Racer" Looks surprisingly lightweight and
simple. It will carry space tourists on suborbital flights.
In addition to the companies looking to make money from NASA by building ISS shuttles, there are several companies looking to make money the old-fashioned way - by finding people who have too much money and offering a service they can spend it on. I previously wrote about SpaceX and Bigelow's deal to shuttle space tourists to a space hotel. Space Tourism is also being pursued by Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson's company), and XCor Aerospace, who hope to send tourists on day-trips to space. Their reusable spaceships will take off from an airplane runway and reach sub-orbital altitudes, giving passengers several minutes of zero G, and some fantastic views of the Earth, before landing again.

So how much will a space vacation set you back? XCor and Virgin are not publishing prices, but Space Adventures, which has been helping rich people get to space since 2010, charges $20 million for a trip to the ISS, but has accepted $5 million down-payments for sub-orbital flights. I'm guessing that XCor and Virgin are hoping to undercut this price point significantly. Still, it will likely only be affordable to the 1%. But who knows, with the current pace of innovation in the space industry, maybe in 2040 the middle classes will be complaining about leg room in their space shuttle.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SpaceX Launches Dragon Capsule

After a two day delay due to an anomaly in one of the rocket engines, SpaceX's falcon 9 rocket blasted off early this morning, launching a Dragon capsule filled with cargo for the ISS.
There was plenty of news coverage of the event, but there were three little tidbits that I especially enjoyed.
  1. The description of the humorous juxtaposition of the young, casual, SpaceX mission controllers with the suited NASA old guard in the control room: "Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts and jeans or even shorts, a stark contrast to NASA’s old suit-and-tie shuttle team."
  2. View from Spacex's Dragon spacecraft looking outward
    at one of two solar array panels in the process of deploying.
    Source: SpaceX
  3. The picture that @SpaceX tweeted of the Dragon capsule solar arrays after they deployed. News reports say the cheering in the control room after the successful deployment of the solar arrays was almost louder than the cheering following the successful launch. In many ways, deploying the solar arrays is the most stressful, high stakes activity of commissioning. It takes less force, and different mechanics, to deploy arrays in a zero G environment than it does on Earth. In fact, many spacecraft (like the James Webb Telescope) are never able to fully test solar array deployment on Earth; gravity makes the solar arrays too heavy to operate with the motors that will be used in space. Operators must trust in the capability of the mechanical engineers and software simulations without ever testing the full deployment procedure. I have a friend who was working on a satellite at Space Systems Loral when one of the solar arrays failed to deploy during commissioning. In a last ditch effort to save the spacecraft they fired a spacecraft thruster at the array to try to push it out, and ended up losing whatever capability they had from the partially deployed array by blowing a hole through it. The satellite is now a very expensive piece of space junk, floating around in GEO with 100 million dollars worth of expensive, cutting edge technology and equipment, and no power. 
  4. The smaller, public interest news articles about Celestis, the for-profit company that sent the ashes of 300 people to orbit aboard the Falcon 9. The "special payload" included the remains of James Doohan (Scotty, from Star Trek) and Gordon Cooper (one of the famous Mercury 7 astronauts). The ashes were in the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which was jettisoned about 10 minutes after launch and will remain in orbit for about a year before its orbit decays and it burns up in Earth's atmosphere. This was actually the backup flight for Celestis - the first round of ashes failed to make it to orbit on the botched 2008 SpaceX launch that crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Congrats to SpaceX! I am excited to follow the mission over the next two weeks as the Dragon performs several maneuvers and is eventually grabbed by ISS astronauts using the station's robotic arm. The SpaceX Ops team has a lot on their plate - It must be an incredibly exciting experience, but I don't envy the pressure on them or their likely sleep schedule for the next two weeks!

Monday, May 14, 2012


The Soyuz blasts off from Kazakhstan
AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel
A hearty Поздравляю! to NASA Astronaut Joe Acaba and the two Russian cosmonauts who blasted off last night in a Soyuz capsule headed for the ISS. If all goes well, they will get to witness the docking of SpaceX's Dragon Capsule on May 19 - the first by a private sector company. The capsule will contain cargo and supplies for the ISS, and will be the first of 12 planned supply missions to the ISS by SpaceX. If all goes well with the Dragon capsule missions (and the prerequisite Falcon 9 launches), SpaceX will eventually be shuttling astronauts to the ISS, eliminating the need for NASA to rely on Russia to taxi US astronauts back and forth.

Last night's launch is a good example of why we badly need the private sector to reinvigorate the space industry: After 50 years of NASA's monopoly on manned space flight, we are sending one astronaut at a time to the ISS in a Russian capsule designed in the 1960s. May 19 cannot come soon enough.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gas Station of the Future

Here's an interesting idea: MDA is working on a Space Infrastructure Servicing (SIS) vehicle, which would essentially act as a travelling gas station for aging satellites. Comms satellites usually die once they run out of fuel for delta V maneuvers that keep them in geosynchronous orbit. The SIS would extend the life of a satellite by sidling up it and transferring fuel directly into its tank.

MDA announced a contract with Intelsat about a year ago to service several of its aging communications satellites, but Intelsat has since withdrawn after MDA failed to secure any more customers. In February, MDA said it was waiting on a contract decision by DARPA before deciding whether to shelve the project.

I think the idea is pretty neat, if not exactly revolutionary. Satellites are incredibly expensive to build, and a life extension of even a few years could have a big payoff, especially because the most expensive part of launching a satellite is paying for the launch vehicle. Plus, longer satellite lives means slower turnover and fewer dead satellites contributing to the growing amount of debris in space.

That said, I think ViviSat might have the better idea - they propose a Mission Extension Vehicle that would dock with a satellite, then use its own fuel to boost the satellite's orbit. This approach has two benefits:
1. Less risk - no need to actually open up the gas tank of the satellite being serviced.
2. Wider market - ViviSat claims the MEV would be able to dock with 90% of the 450 or so geostationary satellites in orbit, whereas the SIS can dock to only 75% that have a certain kind of gas tank. Plus, the MEV would be able to do orbit boosting for nanosats with no propellant system, which would make it possible to keep small satellites with no thrusters going at low orbits (<600 km) for more than a few years. If the service was available at a reasonable price point, THAT could be pretty revolutionary.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Envisat Redlines

Yesterday operators called off the resuscitation effort on Envisat, the European Space Agency's massive Earth-imaging satellite, after a month of unresponsiveness from the 10 year old satellite. There are several possible causes of the loss of communication. According to, "The failure of a power regulator may be blocking the satellite's telemetry and telecommand systems, ESA officials said. There may have also been a short circuit on board that plunged Envisat into a protective "safe mode," then a second malfunction that left the satellite in an unknown state, incapable of receiving commands from Earth. As a fellow operator, my heart goes out to the Envisat Ops team. I can't imagine anything more frustrating than troubleshooting an unknown anomaly in the blind, with the whole space world watching. 

Despite having no comms, the ESA was able to verify that the solar arrays were still deployed thanks to a neat photo from the CNES Earth-observing Pleiades satellite:
Envisat, as images by Pleiades. Source: CNES 
The ESA says that operators will continue to command in the blind and consider failure scenarios for the next couple months. (I imagine they will also be job hunting!) Assuming they cannot raise Envisat from the dead, the satellite will be the latest casualty in the shrinking fleet of Earth-observation satellites. 
Looks like there's going to be a vacuum in the industry pretty soon. Hmmmmm. Maybe an innovative startup could find a way to take advantage?

Though Envisat's death is sad, we should remember that it had a meaningful and long life, (it's initial lifetime projection was only 5 years) and it died doing what it loved.

Friday, May 11, 2012

SpaceX and Bigelow Make it Official

Artist's rendition of a SpaceX Dragon Capsule mated with a Bigelow
inflatable space station module.
Like a previously coy couple that finally decides to declare that they are "In a Relationship" on Facebook, SpaceX and Bigelow have come clean about their space tourism alliance. Today the two companies announced plans to send people into space aboard SpaceX's Dragon Capsule for extended stays in Bigelow's BA-330 inflatable space station modules.

The partnership was inevitable. The two companies were made for each other from the start - SpaceX has been developing rockets and passenger capsules, operating on the "If we build it the customers will come" mantra since 2002, while Bigelow launched its proof of concept - Genesis - back in 2007 and has been sitting in the R&D phase waiting for launch vehicle technology to catch up ever since. The companies have been in talks for years, and their emergence from the hand-holding flirtation phase elicits a collective sigh of "Finally!" from the industry, rather than a gasp of surprise.

The announcement comes at an odd time, as SpaceX is 8 days away from it's big cargo mission to the ISS, and thus not in a great position to capitalize on the publicity opportunities the announcement affords. Maybe they are feeling pressure due to ATK's recent announcement ("Hey guess what guys, we have a rocket too! LOLZ"). Or maybe they felt left out of the hyped-up space news conference extravaganza.