Part 3 of 3 Parts (Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first)
One big stumbling block for the Interstellar Probe project is the fact that best heat shield ever used by a NASA probe is only able to protect a probe that comes within four million miles of the Sun. The Interstellar Probe would have to come within two million miles of the Sun in order to make best use of the gravity boost.
Nicky Fox is the director of NASA’s heliophysics division. She says, “There is a moment for every big mission, almost an ‘aha’ moment, when the technology is ready and you’ve got a plan and it makes sense and is going to answer the science questions.” The heat shield problem is standing in the way of satisfaction with the Interstellar Probe plan.
There is another big question that looms with respect to the Interstellar Probe mission that goes beyond technology and politics. By 2050 deadline projected for the Interstellar Probe to reach its objective, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the global average temperature will be two degrees Celsius above the average temperature in pre-industrial times. Unless the world embarks on a “moon-shot” to curb carbon emissions, in 2050 many of the world’s major cities will be under several feet of water due to sea level rise or they will be experiencing temperatures that will make them uninhabitable. Unfortunately, major countries have not done enough to curb their carbon emissions.
Mandt believes that the Interstellar Probe mission might be helpful in inspiring the U.S. and the world to also seriously consider putting major resources into a multigenerational project such as mitigating climate change. She said, “This would be an example of a large group of people working together on something multigenerational. Which is the same thing we need with climate change.”
She has pointed out that members of the team working on the Interstellar Probe mission range from recent graduates from graduate school programs to people who are on the verge of retirement. At least eight different countries have contributed members of the team. The team includes engineers, astronomers, planetary scientists and a particle physicist.
Last year, Mandt invited Janet Vertesi of Princeton to advise them on best organizational principles. Vertesi has carried out ethnographic studies of possible teams for astronauts who will share a spacecraft. This is the first known incident where a sociologist has been involved in the development of a NASA space mission.
Vertesi said that her job for the Interstellar Probe project was to remind them of the human side of such missions. How will the team handle conflicts? Where should the data be stored? How does the team recruit diverse members to properly represent the nations who will launch the probe? She said. “We’re testing out this notion that you can actually plan a mission up front to achieve certain social objectives, too.”
Vertesi says that it is good feeling to be involved in such an inherently long-term optimistic project given all the problems that bedevil the world today. Scientists will dedicate their careers to a project that will outlive them. She adds, these people just can’t wait for the future to come.”
Part 3 of 3 Parts (Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first)
Part 2 of 3 Parts (Please read Part 2)
In order to achieve the maximum velocity possible to travel beyond the Solar System, a really powerful rocket will be required. NASA hopes to have its powerful Space Launch System (SLS) ready by 2021. It is capable of twice the thrust of the most power current launch system. The SLS would launch from Earth at about nine miles a second. It would loop around Jupiter and then plunge back into the Solar System to get a gravity boost from the Sun. Skimming through the outer atmosphere of the Sun, it would fire a second rocket which would boost its speed to around sixty miles a second. At this speed, it should reach the heliopause in about ten years.
The team working on the McNutt plan hopes that they will be able to route the probe past Uranus, Neptune or a body in Kuiper Belt know as Quaoar. Kathy Mandt is a planetary scientist who hopes that good use can be made of the time the Interstellar Probe spends in the Solar System. It might also be useful for improving the search for exoplanets. This could be accomplished by looking back at planets in the Solar System with the same equipment that is currently being used to look for exoplanets. When the probe crosses the heliopause, it can take samples of dust and particles which will aid in understanding the heliosphere and the materials that formed our Solar System.
Once beyond the protective bubble of the heliosphere, it will be able to investigate phenomena that are obscured by the heliosphere such as cosmic rays from exploding stars, light from the afterglow of the big bang, disks of debris that are forming planets around young stars and other interstellar objects and processes.
So far, the McNutt Interstellar Probe only exists as a PowerPoint Presentation. His team has received funding of around seven hundred thousand dollars from NASA for concept studies. Currently they are waiting to find out whether NASA will provide an additional six and a half million dollars over the next three years. This would permit them to draft a more detailed plan for scientific studies and a mission design document.
The critical moment for the Interstellar Probe project will arrive in 2023. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will publish their next decadal survey for solar and space physics. These assessments are conducted every ten years under request from Congress and NASA. They are considered to be the official consensus for U.S. space science goals. They will guide NASA budgeting for the next ten years.
Richard Mewaldt is a Caltech physicist who served as chair for the solar and heliospheric physics panel during the most recent decadal survey which was published in 2013. He said, with respect to the Interstellar Probe, “It was always something we couldn’t do immediately, but set aside maybe for the future.” In the 2013 decadal document, advanced planning for an interstellar probe was ranked as the eighth among nine imperatives for NASA.
NASA has a heliophysics division which would be responsible for overseeing any interstellar missions. It receives less funding than any other NASA science division. It might help launch the Interstellar Probe mission if they could interest the planetary sciences division at NASA in flyby missions to the outer planets and/or the Kuiper Belt object. Unfortunately, the different NASA divisions are kept well separated and it is difficult to obtain funds from multiple NASA division for a single mission.
Please read Part 3 next
Part 1 of 3 Parts
For the most part, I have blogged about space around the Earth. Occasionally I have ventured out into the Solar System. Very rarely, I have written about missions beyond our Solar System. Today I am going to blog about a such a mission.
Ralph McNutt works at the Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics Laboratory. Now sixty-five, he has been interested in interstellar travel since he was a teenager. He is currently drafting a plan that would send a probe ninety-three billion miles into interstellar space. This is about one thousand times the distance between the Sun and the Earth which is referred to as one astronomical unit. The probe would explore the conditions beyond the Solar System. The probe would take about fifty years to reach its destination. It is likely that everyone involved in launching the probe will be dead by the time it achieved its objective.
McNutt and his team hope to be chosen when U.S. space scientists release a list of their top research priorities. In order to get their mission on the agenda, they must convince their colleagues that the goal of the mission is scientifically valuable. Of course, it will have to be politically viable in its competitions with many research worthy topics on the Earth and in the Solar System.
Our Sun is in a minor arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky way is about one hundred thousand light years across. The Earth is about twenty-five thousand light years from the center of the Milky Way which, about half the way to the rim. The Earth is currently traveling about half a million miles per hour. It is hit by gusts of gas and dust and pounded by highly energetic particles whose origins are unknown. The surface of the Earth is shielded from this rain of gas, dust and particles by what is called the “heliosphere.” This is a stream of charged particles called the solar wind which streams out past all the planets to the very edge of the Solar System. Out beyond the Solar System, there is a region known as the “heliopause.” This is the buffer zone between the solar wind and the ocean of dust and gas in interstellar space. It is the boundary between our Solar System and the interstellar environment.
Only two Earth probes have ever reached the heliopause while still functioning. The two probes were referred to as Voyagers. They were launched in 1977 and it took over thirty-five years for them to reach the boundary. Other probes have traveled out of the Solar System, but they had stopped functioning by the time they reached the heliopause. Some of the instruments on the Voyager probes have failed and their radio transmissions have become fainter and fainter.
Voyager 1, the most distant object ever built by humanity is now one hundred and forty-five astronomical units. At the rate that it is traveling, it will take two hundred and eighty-three years to make it to the region targeted by McNutt.
Please read Part 2 next
NASA has just announced that it is sending a lander to Titan, a moon of Saturn. The lander will carry a robot helicopter to explore Titan. The mission is called Dragonfly. It is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program which is dedicated to high-priority solar system science projects. Current New Frontiers missions include Juno which is a mission to Jupiter, New Horizons which is currently flying through the Kuiper Belt and OSIRIS-Rex which is orbiting the small asteroid named Bennu.
Dragonfly includes a quadcopter. It has four pairs of coaxial propellers which are each mounted to the corners of the thirty feet long lander. The plan is for it to land and then make a series of five-mile hops so it can carry out experiments at different locations. It will take pictures and samples of the air and surface materials to examine their chemical composition. It will also take meteorological and seismological measurements at each location. The main goal of the mission is to determine whether there are organic molecules on Titan that could be the basis of some kind of life.
Saturn is over eighty-six billion miles from Earth. Titan is so cold that if there is water on the surface, it will be as hard as granite on Earth. Titan has a atmosphere fifty percent thicker than Earth which is compose mostly of nitrogen. The Cassini spacecraft orbited Titan and took many images and readings. Some of the surface features captured by Cassini include dunes composed of hydrocarbon sand, cryovolcanoes and even evidence of an ocean of liquid water under the surface. Cassini also found huge lakes of liquid methane and ethane close to the north pole. Radar images of the landscape revealed hills and rivers that flow into the lakes. This suggests that methane on Titan behaves in a way that resembles water on Earth. It has a similar cycle composed of evaporation, movement as vapor in the atmosphere, rain and large pools of liquid on the ground. Although the temperature on Titan is around -290° Fahrenheit, the methane cycle and lots of organic molecules may be involved in complex prebiotic chemistry reactions.
The Dragonfly mission is scheduled for a 2026 launch date assuming that the hardware for the mission will require about seven years to construct. Much of the instrumentation is based on known and tested designs. The power source will be a common radioisotope thermoelectric generator that uses plutonium to generate electricity. Solar power would not be useful because Titan only gets about one percent of the sunlight that falls on the Earth. The big question is whether or not the propellers will function correctly in the cold atmosphere. On the positive side, the gravity on Titan is only one seventh of the gravity on Earth and the atmosphere of Titan is much denser. This should make it easy to fly around on Titan. What winds there are on Titan are low velocity and should not present a problem. If Dragonfly is launched in 2026, it will not reach Titan until 2034.
The Dragonfly mission as envisioned should last for at least two and a half years. Unfortunately, this will not be enough time for the quadcopter to hop from the landing site near the equator to the huge lakes at the pole.
I have written about Tethers Unlimited (TU) before. They are a private space company located in Bothell, WA. Years ago, when they were founded, tethers were thought to hold great promise for a number of space applications. As time passed, that promise faded and so did the money available for research and development. When I saw a presentation by the head of TU last year, they were diversifying into providing satellite maneuvering thrusters using water for fuel and satellite radios that used software to set the frequency.
NASA has just handed out forty-five million dollars to support three hundred and sixty-three aerospace projects that were proposed by small businesses and research institutions. Each project has been awarded up to a one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollar Phase 1 grants as part of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR). TU was awarded grants for five space technology projects. TU has been granted NASA Phase 1 grants before for such things as in-space construction and 3D printing. Here are brief descriptions of the five new TU projects.
SPIDER: When I was listening to the TU CEO talking about current research projects, he described a machine that could move around on structures in orbit and use a spool of material to create new struts for the structure. I thought to myself that that sounded like a mechanical spider. Soon after that thought occurred to me, he said that they called the construction machine a “Spider”. At TU, SPIDER now stands for Sensing and Positioning in Deep Environments With Retrieval. This new device does not fit the description that I heard at the presentation last year. This new SPIDER is intended to position itself above a lunar crater and take samples while changing position. It was developed to overcome the contamination and stability problems that can occur when a lunar rover is exploring a crater. Phase 1 funding is to support development and design. If NASA funds Phase II, a prototype will be developed and tested.
ARTIE: ARTIE stands for Androgynous Robotic Tool-change Interface. It is intended to supply power and data interface to the connectors on robot arms used in space. Phase I will consist of demonstration of a proof of concept prototype. If NASA grants Phase II for ARTIE, a prototype will be sent into orbit for testing.
VORTEX: VORTEX stands for Venus or Titan Exploration. This is a gimballed pointing mechanism or artificial “wrist” that would be use for Venus and/or Titan explorations as well as satellite operations in other extreme environments. Phase I funds will be to support progress in the design of ARTIE.
HyperBus: The HyperBus Cargo Platform is a palletized system for the transport, emplacement and exchange of hardware at the International Space Station or other orbital platforms. If TU gets to Phase II on this project, funding will be used to develop the concept, construct a prototype and demonstrate the system in the TU laboratory.
RAMP TPS: RAMP TPS stands for Resin Additive Manufacturing Processed Thermal Protection System. Phase I funding will support development of an in-situ cured, additively manufactured, spacecraft heatshield material and process. This device will allow the lost-cost manufacture of heat shields in orbit for re-entry vehicles. TU and Western Washington University will collaborate on the creation of this technology.
Twenty commercial space companies joined NASA representative at a conference last week to discuss the commercial possibilities of the International Space Station. NASA has been planning to use the ISS to support the commercialization of space for some time. Stephanie Schierholz, the lead spokesperson for NASA, said, “We’re here because the International Space Station is now open for business.”
The NASA plan included allowing private astronauts to visit and stay on the ISS, brought to the station by U.S. launch vehicles. It also includes inviting private companies to carry out business activities on the ISS. These activities could include “in-space manufacturing, marketing activities, healthcare research and more.”
NASA presented a five-part plan that it insisted would not conflict with the use of the ISS for government and public sector purposes. It will stimulate creative and varied revenue-generating opportunities for private companies. NASA wants to become just one of many users of the ISS and other low Earth orbit facilities. NASA says that this should benefit the U.S. taxpayers too.
Part 1: NASA has created an ISS Commercial Use Policy. This policy provides a menu of supplies and/or resources that will be available for purchase by private companies. Resources such as crew time, cargo launch and cargo return capabilities are just some of the resources that will be available.
Part 2: Private astronauts can book one or two short duration visits per year beginning in 2020. The missions will have to be privately funded, dedicated commercial space flights. These missions will have to use U.S. spacecraft which will include NASA certified space travel vehicles such as the SpaceX Crew Dragon. NASA will provide pricing for such resources as use of life support, supplies for the private astronauts, physical storage, computer usage and data storage.
Part 3: The forward section of the Harmony Node 2 of the ISS will be the first part of the ISS that will be a commercial destination. Other habitable commercial modules are planned for integration into the ISS in the future. NASA will issue a request for proposals on June 14th. And will select the first customer who will start developing the commercial facilities by the end of this year.
Part 4: NASA is working on a plan to stimulate long-term commercial demand. Space manufacturing and regenerative medicine are the first commercials uses for the ISS being considered. NASA has requested white papers by June 15th and proposals by June 28th.
Part 5: NASA has issued a new white paper that details the minimum needs for commercially viable long-term operations on the ISS.
One of the most import parts of the NASA planning is to significantly reduce the cost of commercial transit to and from the ISS. NASA would also like to see private space companies develop and construct a private space station to eventually replace the ISS when it reaches the end of its operational life.
There are about fifty private companies carrying out projects on the ISS right now. The new announcement is aimed at formalizing and scaling operations over the long term.
In addition to this blog on the space industry, I also write a weekly blog on the nuclear issues at www.nucleotidings.com. Occasionally, I write posts that are relevant to both blogs such as today’s post on nuclear thermal propulsion.
In a nuclear thermal propulsion system, a fission reactor is used to heat a propellant such as hydrogen which is then directed through a nozzle to provide thrust for a space craft. It is estimated that such a propulsion system could substantially reduce the duration of a deep space mission such as a trip to Mars. Early in the Space Age, NASA studied nuclear thermal propulsion only to abandon it in the early 1970s. Such research has only recently been resurrected.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke March 26th at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama. He said, “As we continue to push farther into our solar system, we’ll need innovative new propulsion systems to get us there, including nuclear power. And the president and I know there’s no place on Earth better equipped to lead the world in pioneering these new propulsion technologies than Rocket City, U.S.A., a reference to a nickname for the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Nuclear thermal propulsion also has support in Congress as well as in the private space industry. Jeff Thornburg is the chief executive and president of Interstellar Technologies, a private space company. He used to be a propulsion executive at SpaceX and Stratolaunch. At the May 22 Space Tech Expo in Pasadena California, he said, “Nuclear propulsion is key to exploiting our capabilities beyond low Earth orbit. There’s some key technology development that really needs to happen beyond the current state of the art.” He said that nuclear thermal propulsion integrated with electrical propulsion was the key to facilitating the expansion of nuclear thermal propulsion.
Thornburg admitted that there were regulatory issues with nuclear thermal propulsion beyond purely technical challenges whether the nuclear thermal propulsion systems were developed and operated by government or private space industry. He also said that recent comments at the March meeting of the National Space Council by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy about reviewing nuclear propulsion were encouraging.
It is not clear exactly how nuclear thermal propulsion fits into the long-term exploration plans of NASA. Roadmaps for NASA exploration as well as many roadmaps developed by the private space industry rely on conventional propulsion systems such as chemical and solar electrical propulsion. While these system do not offer the same reduced travel times as nuclear thermal propulsion, they also do not present the same technical and regulatory challenges. None of the list of proposed NASA missions through 2028 specifically call for nuclear thermal propulsion.
In 2019, the U.S. Congress provided one hundred million dollars for work on nuclear thermal propulsion. Seventy million dollars out of the hundred million dollars was earmarked for a flight demonstration of nuclear thermal propulsion in 2024.
NASA has just announced that it has awarded contracts to three companies to carry payloads of scientific instruments to the Moon in 2020 and 2021. No private company has ever successfully landed a probe on the Moon. The last time the U.S. space program landed anything on the Moon was forty-six years ago. With these new contracts, NASA is moving forward on its promise to use commercial space companies to assist in the U.S. exploration of the Moon.
This new program was formerly called Commercial Payload Services. It represents the start of a decade-long project for NASA to return to the Moon. One of the goals of this new program is to establish a permanent manned base on the surface of the Moon. Another goal is to analyze potential of the lunar surface with respect to possible human activities. A third goal is to assess the possibility of utilizing resources present on or near the lunar surface.
Thomas Zurbuchen is the head of NASA’s science programs. He said, “The most important goal we have right now is really science, but we do so as part of the agency’s strategy to go to the Moon. We want to do it with partners. We want to not only go there, but to grow an industry. That’s the only way we can stay.”
Orbit Beyond (OB) is a private space company that is located in New Jersey. OB has signed a ninety-seven million dollar contract to send its Z-01 lander to a lava plain that is about thirty degrees north of the lunar equator in September of 2020. The OB space craft will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket along with other satellites. Jon Morse is the chief science officer for OB. He said, “People want to understand how close you can put a habitat to a landing site. When we do this descent, and we get this imagery, scientists can study the trajectory of those plumes.”
Astrobotics (AB) is a private space company located in Pennsylvania. They signed an eighty million dollar contract to deliver up to fourteen payloads to a big crater on the near side of the Moon named Lacus Mortis. The AB payloads will be launched by either Falcon 9 or Atlas V rockets in 2021.
Intuitive Machines is a private space company located in Texas. IM was awarded seventy seven million dollars to ferry up to five payloads to an interesting lunar location called Oceanus Procellarum. This mission will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket sometime in 2021.
The big challenge for these contracts is whether or not private space companies can successfully land payloads on the Moon. Representatives of each of the three companies contracted by NASA said that they were working hard to balance system redundancy in their payloads with constraints based on mass and cost of payloads.
NASA had previously said that these missions were “shots on goal” implying that some of them might not be successful. However, the NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration said last Friday that his “confidence is high that these three companies will succeed.”
On May 16th, NASA announced that forty-five and a half million dollars is going to be awarded to eleven companies under the terms of NextSTEP E contracts. NASA has been developing a plan for manned lunar exploration. A space station dubbed the Gateway will be placed in orbit around the Moon. Ascent and descent elements will be developed to move astronauts from the lunar surface to the Gateway and from the Gateway to the lunar surface. The vehicles will need refueling which will probably involve the use of hydrogen generated from lunar ice.
Marshall Smith is the director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters. He said, “To accelerate our return to the moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business. We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations. Our team is excited to get back to the moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process.”
This NASA program will require that the selected companies provide at least twenty percent of the cost of their contracts. There will be contracts for concept studies and prototypes will have a six-month term. To speed up this process, NASA has told companies that they can go ahead and get started while the contracts are being negotiated.
Blue Origin: Will carry out studies on the descent element and the transfer vehicle.
Aerojet Rocketdyne, Canoga Park, Calif.: Will carry out one transfer vehicle study.
Boeing, Houston: Will carry out one descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, one refueling element study. Will construct two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element prototype.
Dynetics, Huntsville, Ala.: Will carry out one descent element study and construct five descent element prototypes.
Lockheed Martin, Littleton, Colo.: Will carry out one descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, one refueling element study and construct four descent element prototypes.
Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.: Will construct one descent element prototype.
Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Dulles, Va.: Will carry out one descent element study and one refueling element study, and construct four descent element prototypes, and one refueling element prototype.
OrbitBeyond, Edison, N.J.: Will construct two refueling element prototypes.
Sierra Nevada Corp., Louisville, Colo., and Madison, Wis.: Will carry out one descent element study, one transfer vehicle study one and one refueling element study. Will construct one descent element prototype andT one transfer vehicle prototype.
SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.: Will carry out one descent element study.
SSL, Palo Alto, Calif.: Will carry out one refueling element study and construct one refueling element prototype.
NASA considers the hardware being developed for transporting astronauts from Earth to the Gateway and from the Gateway to Earth to be separate from the project to develop a system to move astronauts between the Gateway and the Moon.
There will be another solicitation referred to as NextSTEP H issued this summer for the purpose of developing the requirements for a manned mission to the Moon by 2024. Greg Chavers is the human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. He said, “This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system. NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”
With President Trump and Vice President Pence publicly pushing for a U.S. manned landing on the Moon in the next five years, there is a lot discussion of lunar exploration in the popular press. Ultimately, the companies and nations interested in the exploring the moon want to build permanent manned bases there. This will require either the construction of buildings or the excavation of tunnels to provide shelter for lunar colonists.
Jamal Rostami is the Director of the Earth Mechanics Institute at the US Colorado School of Mines. He recently attended the World Tunnel Congress in Naples, Italy. He said, “Space is becoming a passion for a lot of people again. There are discussions about going back to the moon, this time to stay.” In order for humans to live safely on the moon, they must be protected from solar and cosmic radiation, freezing temperatures and meteor strikes.”
"Imagine something the size of my fist as a piece of rock coming at 10-12 kilometers (6-7 miles) per second, it can hit anything and would immediately destroy it. So every plan for having a habitat on the moon involves making a trench, creating a structure and covering it with some sort of regolith, which is the soil on the moon. Our idea is to actually start underground, using a mechanism we already use on the earth, a tunnel boring machine, to make a continuous opening to create habitats or connect the colonies together.”
Analyses of photographs of the surface of the moon show openings that lead to huge lava tubes that could house whole cities. A tunnel boring machine could be used to dig habitable tunnels between the lava tubes. The big problems is how to get a huge tunnel boring machine to the Moon.
When you are sending anything to the Moon, Rostami says that "Weight is an issue. It's pretty expensive to take a kilogram of material from the earth to the moon. Our machines are hundreds of tons of mass, so it's not feasible to take the machines as they are. We have to convert the design, where all the components are optimized, weigh much less, and perform better.” The tunnel boring machines will have to be redesigned to be fully automatic and any necessary repairs will need to minimized. This will be difficult because of the wear and tear on cutting components as they chew through rocks and dirt.”
Another big problem for lunar tunneling machines will be their source of power. A conventional tunnel boring machine with a thirteen feet diameter needs around two thousand kilowatts of power. The possibility of small nuclear reactors to power the lunar tunneling machines has been raised. (NASA is already working on a compact self-contained nuclear reactor for possible use on Mars.)
Space enthusiasts at the United Launch Alliance suggest that a thousand people may be living in space by 2050. They would either be in orbital space stations or lunar habitats. It is estimated that this initial phase of space colonization will cost around three trillion dollars. While it is possible the lunar tunneling machines could be used to explore for and extract precious minerals such as gold from the lunar surface, the first and most precious resource that must be secured is water.
Rostami says, “The first target is water. We know there is trapped water at the lunar poles, where the temperature is as low as -190 degrees Celsius (-310 Fahrenheit). One of the ideas being discussed is of heating the part in permanent shadow, evaporating the water and capturing it. Another idea is to mine it and take it to a facility and let it thaw. The material extracted along with the water can then be used to 3D print buildings in the colonies. The future lunar tunneling machines will undergo rigorous pilot testing on Earth first because once they are deployed, that's that. It'll be very difficult to make any drastic changes”.
In addition to writing this weekly blog on space issues, I write a blog about nuclear issues every week day. In my nuclear blog, I have often talked about the greed and incompetence of some companies in the nuclear industry. Le Creuset is a French Company that sold nuclear components and reactor vessels made of substandard steel for decades before they were caught. I am sad to say that the new space industry is not free from such problems.
Following the 2009 failure of the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the failure of the launch of 2011 launch of the Glory missions, NASA went to their Launch Services Program (LSP) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) to find out what went wrong. At first, NASA had just said that their launch vehicle malfunctioned. Apparently, the nose cones on the Taurus XL rockets used to launch the failed missions had malfunctioned. But NASA kept digging into the cause of the malfunctions.
The investigators found that the fairings (nose cones) on the rockets did not separate because failure of the aluminum extrusions for a part called the payload fairing rail frangible joint. This part is an explosive separation device that is intended to insure that the fairing separates cleanly from the rocket and falls away from it.
Sapa Profiles (SP) provided aluminum parts to NASA for the construction of the fairings. The joint investigation of the LSP and the DoJ found that SP had been engaged in fraudulent behavior for almost twenty years. Workers at SP would falsify test numbers or violate testing standards to make it appear as if their poor-quality parts had passed aluminum certification. The company would then present the fake certificates to NASA.
Apparently, SP wanted to make profits by making substandard parts and faking certification. They used production based bonuses to entice employees to do anything that would speed up production. Millions of dollars of satellite equipment made by SP were so faulty that they were unable to successfully complete their intended missions in space and ultimately sustained damage.
SP has changed its name to Hydro Extrusion Portland and agreed to pay the U.S. government forty-six million dollars. Unfortunately, this does not even come close to the seven hundred million dollars lost by NASA as a result of the failure of Taurus launches. SP, under its new name will not be allowed to ever do business with the U.S. government again. At least their fraudulent behavior will not endanger any more rocket launches.
It is interesting to note that the problem at SP is very similar to the problem at Le Creuset. Both companies falsified quality control documentation for their alloys and then used the false documents to support sales and profits. While the damage done by bad SP parts did not have the possibility of the horrible damage that could have been done by failure of Le Creuset parts, they still wasted a lot of money and the failed satellite launches add to the debris in orbit which is already causing problems for the for NASA and private space companies. Hopefully, NASA will be more careful about sourcing its components in the future.
Graphene is form of carbon where a single layer of carbon atoms is laid out in a hexagonal grid. Graphene has many amazing properties. It is the strongest material ever tested. It can conduct electricity and heat efficiently. It is almost transparent and yet it is surprisingly opaque for a material that is only a single atom thick. Graphene has a large and nonlinear diamagnetism and can be levitated by neodymium magnets. Although graphene has been produced for use in graphite applications such as pencils for centuries, it was isolated and characterized by researchers at the University of Manchester in 2004.
Graphene foam is created by vapor deposition on a metal foam, a three-dimensional mesh of metal filaments which are then removed, leaving a foam structure composed of graphene. Graphene foams have found use in electrodes for very efficient batteries.
Purdue University's Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories is the largest academic propulsion lab in the world. Li Qiao is an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics in Purdue’s College of Engineering. His team is working on a new solid propellant based on graphene foam for use in rocket engines. Their goal was to increase the burn rate of the solid fuel. Li said, “Our propulsion and physics researchers came together to focus on a material that has not previously been used in rocket propulsion, and it is demonstrating strong results.”
Li’s team is researching methods of creating and using composites that consist of conductive highly porous graphene foams loaded with solid fuels. The foams enhance the burn rate for the solid fuels that have been loaded into the foam. The team had a goal of maximizing the catalytic effect of metal oxides additives that are commonly used in solid propellants in order to facilitate decomposition. Their foam structures are thermally stable at high temperatures and can be reused by reloading solid fuel into the foam to replace the fuel that has burned.
The graphene foam works very well for solid propellants because it is extremely lightweight and highly porous. This mean that it has many holes in which engineers can load fuels to ignite a rocket launch. The foam has a 3D interconnected structure which allows for a more efficient thermal transport pathway. This allows heat to spread quickly to ignite the propellant loaded into the foam.
Li Qiao said that “Our patented technology provides higher performance that is especially important when looking at areas such as hypersonics. Our tests showed a burn rate enhancement of nine times the normal, using functionalized graphene foam structures.” Li Qiao says that the Purdue graphene foam research has applications for energy conversion devices and missile defense systems. There also other areas where tailoring nanomaterials for specific purposes can very useful.
Li Qiao and his team are working with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technological Commercialization (OTC) in order to patent the new technologies they have developed. They are currently seeking partners to license the new technology. The OTC “operates one of the most comprehensive technology transfer programs among leading research universities in the U.S. Services provided by this office support the economic development initiatives of Purdue University and benefit the university's academic activities.”
There are many practical reasons to launch satellites including Earth sensing, astronomy, preparing for deep space missions, carrying out low gravity research on chemistry and biology, etc. There are also strategic reasons such as control, command and communication of men and equipment on the ground during war as well as placing weapons in orbit for use in conflict. Then there are some reasons that do not appear to be quite so useful.
It was first reported back in January of 2019 that StartRocket, a Russian aerospace company, announced that it intends to launch a bunch of cubesats into Earth orbit that can act as an “orbital billboard.” The billboard would be used to project huge advertisements into the night sky, sort of like artificial constellations. The cubesats would unfurl pieces of highly reflective Mylar which would be manipulated to reflect light to the Earth in early mornings and/or evenings. Just what the world needs, more public advertising.
StartRocket said a few days ago that PepsiCo will be its first client. Pepsi will use the orbiting billboard to support its new energy drink called Adrenaline Rush through a “campaign against stereotypes and unjustified prejudices against gamers.”
Olga Mangova is a spokesperson for Russian PepsiCo. She confirmed that the stories about PepsiCo contracting StartRocket are true. She sent an email which said, “We believe in StartRocket potential. Orbital billboards are the revolution on the market of communications. That’s why on behalf of Adrenaline Rush — PepsiCo Russia energy non-alcoholic drink, which is brand innovator, and supports everything new, and non-standard — we agreed on this partnership.”
Vlad Sitnikov is the project leader for the PepsiCo campaign. He said “We are ruled by brands and events such as the Super Bowl, Coca Cola, Brexit, the Olympics, Mercedes, FIFA, Supreme and the Mexican wall. The economy is the blood system of society. Entertainment and advertising are at its heart.”
StartRocket recently tested its idea by attaching one of its reflectors to a helium weather balloon that carried it into the stratosphere. The light from the reflector was visible from the ground. StartRocket intends to launch its cubesat into orbit in 2021. It is currently raising funds to pay for the cubesats and launches. A twenty-thousand dollar investment will pay for eight hours of advertising in the night sky.
There were many negative reactions to the announced plans of StartRocket. They consider the idea of orbital advertisements as a form of sky pollution. An astronomer at the University of Michigan said, “Launching art projects like this with no commercial, scientific, or national security value seems unwise.”
Apparently, the backlash to the announcement of the project intimidated PepsiCo. A few days after the PepsiCo project was announced, PepsiCo says that it has no intentions of doing anything more with the concept of orbital advertising that the launch of the balloon to test the idea. A PepsiCo spokesperson made a public statement that “This was a one-time event; we have no further plans to test or commercially use this technology at this time.”
When contacted about this reversal on the part of PepsiCo, StartRocket representatives were confused by the new PepsiCo position. I am relieved that we have escaped being bombarded by ads in the sky for the time being. Unfortunately, it is probably only a matter of time until someone does it.
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
Beyond concerns about space debris, there are worries expressed by national governments and international regulatory bodies that the current view of space as a neutral and conflict-free zone is being eroded by ASAT tests. This may mark a serious decline in global security.
There are five main international global space treaties that have been in force for up to fifty years.
• Outer Space Treaty (1967) – governs the activities of the states in exploration and use of outer space
• Rescue Agreement (1968) – relates to the rescue and return of astronauts, and return of launched objects
• Liability Convention (1972) – governs damage caused by space objects
• Registration Convention (1967) – relates to registration of objects in space
• Moon Agreement (1984) – governs the activities of states on the Moon and other celestial bodies.
When these treaties were written and ratified, there were only a few space faring nations and the technology was primitive by today’s standards. Many import issues were left unresolved by these treaties. The deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit by any of the signatories is prohibited. However, powerful conventional weapons such as the non-nuclear ballistic missile used in the Indian test are not prohibited.
The treaties says that space shall only be used for “peaceful purposes.” Unfortunately, whenever lawyers are involved, you have to be very careful about the exact meaning of words in laws and treaties. After the successful ASAT missile test, India released a statement that said that “we have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes.” The fact that India could conduct such a test and then make such a claim means that new treaties must be developed that more fully define terms such as “peaceful purposes.”
Work on new space treaties is being carried out in a number of places. At McGill University in Canada, the MILAMOS project is trying to develop a set of fundamental rules of the military use of outer space. The Woomera Manual is a project of the Adelaide Law School in Australia. As important as these projects are, they can only result in “soft laws” which are not binding on any of the space faring nations. The U.N. should be more involved in working on space security issues. Both the U.N. Disarmament Commission and the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space should be pressured to devote more resources to the discussion of the use of weapons in orbit.
To be honest, I am afraid that there is just no way that powerful weapons will not find their way to Earth orbit if they are not already there. There is no global inspection of payloads that are launched into Earth orbit. There are powerful space faring nations that fear each other. I am certain that the international space treaties do not intimidate them and that they would consider it a dereliction of duty not to send secret caches of weapons to orbit “just in case.”
There is no satisfactory solution to this problem. There will be weapons in orbit and they will be used someday. All we can do is work on diplomacy here on Earth to try to prevent a war that spreads to the heavens.
Part 1 of 2 Parts
In my last couple of posts, I talked about the dangers of attacks on U.S. military satellites and how it could hamper our ability to detected missiles launches from enemies. While I was working on these posts, there were news stories about India’s experiment with an antisatellite missile that they used to shoot down one of their own satellites.
The Indian space program is not as big, sophisticated or as well funded as the space programs of some of the big industrial nations such as the U.S., Russia, China, and the European union. Nonetheless, they have done quite well with their limited resources and have been launching their own rockets and satellites for years now.
On March 27 of this year, India reported that it had carried out an antisatellite (ASAT) missile test that they called “Mission Shakti”. (Shakti is a Hindu goddess.) With this successful test, India becomes the fourth nation to demonstrate the capability to use a missile to destroy an orbiting satellite. There was concern among space faring nations that, as a result of the test, over four hundred new pieces of space debris were generated and that some of this debris might threaten the International Space Station.
The type of attack utilized by India to destroy one of its own satellites is called a “kinetic kill” or “hit to kill” attack. The Indian ASAT missile did not have any explosives aboard. The orbiting satellite was destroyed when the ASAT missile crashed into it. This is only one of several ways that an ASAT missile can destroy a satellite in orbit. China used this same technique when it carried out a successful ASAT missile test in 2007, destroying one of their old weather satellites.
Replying to complaints about the space debris generated by their test, India argued that it had conducted the test in the lower atmosphere where the debris would pose less risk because it would burn up. Critics of the test say that India did not properly account for the creation of pieces of debris that were smaller than two inches in diameter and less likely to burn up. Space debris can collide with other space debris and break up to form more even pieces. Space debris can travel at up to six miles per second in the lower atmosphere and even a very small piece could cause problems for operational satellites.
There are almost two thousand operational satellites in orbit around the Earth today. They provide a variety of services to the world including aid to navigation, global communication, weather forecasting, resource tracking, climate change analysis, disaster relief and many others. While these peaceful uses of Earth orbit are of great benefit, satellites can also be used for military purposes such as employing the global civilian GPS systems for targeting missiles. Satellites launched for strictly military purposes include command, control and communications for military operations as well as early warning systems for enemy missile launches. The military uses of satellites make them prime targets in case of a conflict breaks out between space-faring nations.
Please read Part 2