Satellite have been used for communication for decades. Although there have been some attempts to provide Internet services via communication satellites, the technology was slow and expensive which limited its use. These satellites were in geosynchronous orbit which is twenty three thousand miles from the Earth. A signal would need to travel forty-six thousand miles to go from Earth to satellite and back. This means that considerable lag would be introduced.
Several private space industry companies are working on a new approach to providing Internet services to any point on Earth. Instead of a few huge communication satellites far from the Earth, they intend to orbit many small satellites close the Earth to provide full coverage. Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved applications for four companies to loft hundreds to thousands of satellites to provide Internet connectivity. The four companies are Kepler, Telesat, Leosat and SpaceX.
Ajit Pai is the Chairman of the FCC. He said, “I’m excited to see what these services might promise and what these proposed constellations have to offer. “Our approach to these applications reflects this commission’s fundamental approach to encourage the private sector to invest and to innovate and allow market forces to deliver value to American consumers.”
The FCC are going to allow SpaceX to make use of an expanded ranges of wireless spectrum for his project to deliver universal cheap highspeed Internet access from near Earth orbit. SpaceX plans to ultimately launch up to twelve thousand satellites which will be able to cover the entire Earth. Such universal Internet access would be of great benefit to developing nations and communities in remote locations.
The SpaceX Starlink program will launch its first test satellites this month. The FCC gave SpaceX permission to begin the launch of its first four thousand four hundred and twenty-five Internet satellites next month. An ground station would would send a message to the nearest overhead Starlink Satellite. The signal would then be passed from satellite to satellite around the world via laser. When it reaches the satellite nearest its destination, the signal would be beamed down to another ground station. SpaceX says that it might take up to six years to launchT the total of twelve thousand satellites.
SpaceX has said that it would like to eventually see half of all Internet traffic on Earth go through the Starlink system. However, some analysts believe that the first major clients for the system might be high frequency traders at big banks which would be willing to pay more for such high speed, high volume links.
One of the big concerns with allowing so many new satellites to be launched is the problem of space debris. The U.S. military now tracks over half a million individual pieces of space junk. This includes non-functioning satellites, debris from launch vehicles, debris from manned missions including the International Space Station, debris from collisions between orbiting objects and other sources. The FCC has unveiled a proposal that could introduce new rules to the satellite industry that are intended to reduce orbital debris. Changes may be needed to satellite design and the way that companies deal with outdated satellites.
Satellite have been used for communication for decades. Although there have been some attempts to provide Internet services via communication satellites, the technology was slow and expensive which limited its use. These satellites were in geosynchronous orbit which is twenty three thousand miles from the Earth. A signal would need to travel forty-six thousand miles to go from Earth to satellite and back. This means that considerable lag would be introduced.
The race to explore the Moon is heating up. Major players such as the U.S. and China are talking about returning to the Moon to stay. A lunar lander was just sent by China to explore the far side of the Moon. In addition to national space agencies, private companies are getting into the game. Now an Israeli nonprofit company named SpaceIL is leading an effort to send a lander to the Moon.
SpaceIL was started in 2011 with the intention of competing for the thirty million dollar Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP). The GLXP was a contest for privately funded companies. The goal of the contest was to build a spacecraft and send it to the Moon to drop a robot lander to the lunar surface. The rover had to travel at least five hundred meters and send back high-definitions images to Earth in order to win the prize. The GLXP ended in 2018 without a winner.
Despite failing to compete successfully for the GLXP, SpaceIL continued work and its completed lunar lander is now ready to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The plan now is to send the lander to the lunar surface. If lander makes a successful landing, it will then use its rocket engine to take off and land at a second location.
The SpaceIL lander is called the Beresheet. This is a Hebrew word that means “in the Beginning.” The Beresheet is about six feet in diameter and four feet high. It weighs about three hundred and fifty pounds. It also carries almost a thousand pounds of fuel which will be needed to fly from Earth orbit, land on the moon, take off and land at a second location. It carries instrumentation to measure the magnetic field of the Moon. It has a laser-reflector that was supplied by NASA. The Beresheet also carries a time capsule of cultural and historical artifacts from Israel.
The Beresheet lander will be carried into orbit as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket whose primary payload is a geosynchronous communication satellite. Both payloads will travel about twenty-two thousand miles from the Earth. The communication satellite will go into geosynchronous orbit and the lander will use its own rocket engine to travel the rest of the way to the Moon and land. It will take several weeks to make the journey to the Moon.
The Beresheet lander is not designed for a long mission. Once it gets to the Moon, it may only require a few days accomplish its goals. It is primarily intended to demonstrate some new technology and to highlight a potential business model for sending a spacecraft to another astronomical body.
The Beresheet lander’s legacy will be the technical knowledge acquired by its engineering team, the scientific data returned by its instruments, the business model for operating outside of a national government’s space program and the inspiration for a generation of young people in the Middle East and around the World.
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
In September of 2017, NASA and Roscomos, the Russian counterpart to NASA, signed a joint cooperation agreement. This agreement called for collaboration on exploration of the Moon and deep space, including the development and use of the Gateway.
The U.S. National Space Council (NSC) was created in 1989 in the Executive Office of the President of the United States during the administration of George H.W. Bush. It was a modified version of the National Aeronautics and Space Council that ran from 1958 to 1973. It was disbanded in 1993.
The purpose of the Council was to advise the president on U.S. space policy. The Secretaries of
State, Treasury, Defense, Communication, and Transportation were included on the Council. The Director of the OMB, the Chief of Staff of the President, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, the Director of the CIA, and the NASA administrator were also on the Council. The Council was chaired by the Vice President.
The NSC was reformed and reactivated in June of 2017 by the Trump administration. Later in 2017, the Council said that its members felt that lunar exploration should be a primary goal. The Trump administration released its first space policy directive list in December of 2017. In the directive, Trump called for NASA to prioritize a return to the Moon before any manned missions to Mars which had been a priority of the previous Obama administration.
NASA renamed the Deep Space Gateway the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in February 2018 in its budget request for 2019. That budget request also suggested that the U.S. should stop funding operations of the International Space Station in 2024 to free up funds for the Gateway.
At the end of February 2018, NASA held a Deep Space Gateway Science Workshop in Denver. One of the reasons for the workshop was to assist NASA in the development of a science plan for the proposed lunar complex. NASA also launched the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) design competition for university students in 2018. This competition was held to develop concepts for the Gateway.
In the middle of 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that U.S. astronauts could possibly travel to the lunar space station as early as 2024. However, so far, the project is in the early design stages. It is a little early to specify completion dates because the design is evolving. The prime contractor for the four-person space station will be announced later this year.
In the same month as Pence made his prediction, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, told interviewer that the Gateway will not be any where near as expensive as the cost of sending Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s. As a matter of fact, considering that the NASA share of the federal budget was four and a half percent when the Apollo missions flew and is now only half a percent of the federal budget, the mission could not be accomplished if the costs were comparable to the Apollo missions.
NASA is also encouraging the development of additional international Gateway partnerships. Important candidates for these partnerships will be the current partners of the U.S. on the International Space Station. These partners include Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
Part 1 of 2 Parts
I have blogged before about the NASA Gateway project to build a space station that would share the orbit of the moon and serve as a platform to the support of deep space exploration. Today I will go into more details about the NASA lunar Gateway project.
In 2012, NASA began discussing the concept of an installation on the far side of the Moon which always faces away from the Earth. This installation would be called the Deep Space Habitat. A few years later, NASA started developing ideas for a “cislunar” habitat. Cislunar means that the space station would be somewhere between the Earth and the orbit of the Moon.
In early 2015, NASA awarded a few contracts under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. The awards were made for the development of ideas for modules that could be attached to the Orion spacecraft and used land on the Moon.
The Orion is a deep space exploration craft under development at NASA. It is designed to carry up to four astronauts and Orion missions could last up to sixty days. Orion is intended to facilitate the exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids. Orion is not expected to fly before 2024.
One of the first times that NASA publicly mentioned a lunar space station referred to as a Deep Space Gateway was in a March 2017 article on a NASA website. In the article, NASA said, "The agency is ... looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and [would be] serviced by logistics modules to enable research."
NASA went on to say that the Gateway would not just support missions in lunar orbit but would also support deep space exploration and exploitation in general. "The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months."
In July of 2017, NASA put out a competitive request for information regarding the development of the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) for the Gateway. The PPE would supply electrical power as well as chemical and elecrtrical propulsion for the Gateway. By November of 2017, five research contracts related to the Gateway had been signed by NASA. The companies that received the NASA study contracts included Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Systems Loral. The contracts totaled about two and one half million dollars and ran for about four months.
NASA had been studying the design of the PPE module for several months prior to handing out the research contracts. NASA said that these study contracts would allow private space companies to share their ideas for the PPE including the technologies they could offer for the development of the module.
NASA said “We've been looking at it internally, but if they have different ideas on the general concept of the gateway, how we can do that and how it aligns with their internal plans, then we're hoping to get that out of this as well.”
Please read Part 2
We tend to think of steam powered transportation as an antiquated technology. While we still heat water to steam and generate electricity, we have moved on to liquid fuels, electricity and even compressed air to power our vehicles. However, steam is making a comeback as a propulsion system for spacecraft. Tethers Unlimited is selling a system that uses sunlight for power and water for steam to move tiny satellite called cubesats around in their orbits. There have been suggestions that mining water on the Moon, Mars or asteroids could supply water for steam to propel spacecraft.
Honeybee Robotics is a small spacecraft technology and robotics company with headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. It also has offices in Pasadena, California and Longmont, Colorado. Honeybee was started by Steve Gorevan and Chris Chapman. The company was purchased by Ensign-Bickford Industries. Honeybee has special expertise in the development and operation of the small mechanical tools used on Mars Missions. Honeybee is working on developing tools that can be used to support lunar colonies.
Phil Metzger is a planetary scientist on the faculty of the Planetary Science Department of the University of Central Florida. He is working on what he refers to as “Economic Planetary Science” which he hopes will support the expansion of humanity beyond the surface of the Earth. He worked at NASA for thirty years as an engineer and physicist.
Phil Metzger and Honeybee have collaborated on the World Is Not Enough (WINE) prototype for a spacecraft designed to mine water on asteroids. The project was supported by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. The WINE team is searching for partners who would be interested in aiding the development of the small spacecraft.
Honeybee used simulated asteroid dirt to extract water and power the prototype to launch in a vacuum. Metzger said, “WINE successfully mined the soil, made rocket propellant and launched itself on a jet of steam extracted from the simulant.” He also said that the system could be used anywhere in space where there is ice and low-gravity. In addition to asteroids, this includes places like Pluto or small moons of the gas giants in our solar systems.
Honeybee refers to their mining system as the Spider Water Extraction System. They say that their system can "drill into tough icy and mineral composites that can be as hard as concrete." WINE could use steam to move around in space and solar panels or nuclear batteries to power mining on astronomical bodies. Metzger said that "WINE was designed to never run out of propellant so exploration will be less expensive. It also allows us to explore in a shorter amount of time, since we don't have to wait for years as a new spacecraft travels from Earth each time.”
The Honeybee vision for the WINE is have the unmanned craft sail around the solar system exploring asteroids. By using the ice on asteroids for propulsion, the spacecraft could spend years roaming around in space without the need for any external source of fuel.
Planetary Resources (PR) was founded in 2012. The original mission of PR was to find and mine near-Earth asteroids for valuable resources. As I mentioned in a recent post, both water and platinum group metals are thought to exist in large quantities on asteroids. Larry Page, Eric Smidt, Ross Perot Jr. and Charles Simonyi all contributed a portion of their billions of dollars to the start up.
In the last six years, PR raised tens of millions of dollars. They also explored other revenue streams such as space construction robots, water as a satellite propellent, software-based radios and Earth-observation satellites. PR hoped to start asteroid prospecting in the early 2020s but the failure of an important round of funding sank the company.
PR had decided to auction off its equipment at its Redmond, Washington headquarters but the auction was put on hold. Now PR says that its assets have been purchased by the ConsenSys blockchain venture based in Boston.
ConsenSys is a production studio that creates enterprises for businesses based on the Ethereum platform for cryptocurrency and applications of blockchain. So far, fifty ventures or “spokes” have been created by ConsenSys. These include an online poker site, a legal services site and a “transmedia universe integrated with blockchain technology” called Cellarius.
ConsenSys was formed by Joe Lubin, the co-founder of the Ethereum cryptocurrency system. During the announcement of the acquisition, Lubin said, “world-class talent, its record of innovation, and for inspiring people across our planet in support of its bold vision for the future.” Lubin went on to say, “Bringing deep-space capabilities into the ConsenSys ecosystem reflects our belief in the potential for Ethereum to help humanity craft new societal rule systems through automated trust and guaranteed execution. And it reflects our belief in democratizing and decentralizing space endeavors to unite our species and unlock untapped human potential. We look forward to sharing our plans and how to join us on this journey in the months ahead.”
Chris Lewicki, the CEO and President of PR, said, “Over the course of nearly a decade, Planetary Resources has simultaneously pioneered technology, business, law and policy, and brought the promise of space resources irreversibly closer to humankind’s grasp,” he said. “I am proud of our team’s extraordinary accomplishments, grateful to our visionary supporters, and delighted to join ConsenSys in building atop our work to expand humanity’s economic sphere of influence into the solar system.”
Brian Israel was the chief counsel for PR. He said, “Ethereum smart contract functionality is a natural solution for private-ordering and commerce in space — the only domain of human activity not ordered around territorial sovereignty — in which a diverse range of actors from a growing number of countries must coordinate and transact.”
ConsenSys will operate its space agenda out of the old PR facility located in Redmond. Few details were provided on the deal because ConsenSys representative said that they were confidential. Analysts are curious about why a cryptocurrency company would want to acquire an asteroid mining startup.
Moon Express is a private company that was formed in the U.S. in 2010 to compete for the Lunar X Prize and eventually mine the Moon for natural resources with economic value. Last month, Moon Express was awarded a Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract by NASA. The company is now eligible to bid on delivering science and technology payload to the Moon for NASA.
In 2020, Moon Express is scheduled to launch a landing craft to the Moon which will carry a single scoop of lunar rocks and dirt back to Earth. If the mission is successful, Moon Express will sell the scoop of materials returned from the lunar surface. Bob Richards is the CEO of Moon Express. He said, with reference to the scoop of lunar materials, “It will instantly become the most valuable and scarcest material on Earth. We’ll make some of it available to scientific research. But we also plan to commoditize it ourselves.” He also said, “We believe that the first trillionaires will be made from space resources.” This mission will mark the first time that a private company brings back a commercial asset from space.
Another company that is interested in competing for the Lunar X Prize is ispace Inc. located in Japan. Last December, ispace signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with JAXA, the Japanese national space agency. The MoU states that ispace has plans to mine, transport and use the resources of the Moon. There will be an initial phase of operations from 2018 through 2023 during which ispace intends to prospect on the Moon. They will send exploratory robots into lunar craters and caves in a search for water. Actual production is scheduled for 2024.
China has expressed a strong intent to mine the Moon. They are especially interested in helium-3. While there are analysts who believe that helium-3 could supply all the future energy needs for the Earth when used in nuclear fusion reactors, there are critics who say that the concentration of helium-3 on the surface of the Moon is very low. Some estimates place even the concentration of helium-3 in the most attractive areas at about ten parts per billion. And, the nuclear fusion reactors needed to burn helium-3 as a fuel are still under development.
Other private startups are creating plans to travel to the Moon and selected asteroids on mining missions. The first missions will be proof-of-concept missions to show that it is feasible to send mining equipment to rendezvous with asteroids and obtain useful resources.
Deep Space Industries (DSI) is a leading proponent of asteroid mining. The chairman of DSI said that his company will land its first probe on an asteroid in 2020. Tiny robot scouts will explore and analyze prospective asteroids. When a good candidate has been located, they will send a bigger probe to take a sample. Solar power will be used to evaporate materials from the sample and capture the water released. DSI believes that water will be relatively easy to mine from asteroids. If all goes as planned, serious mining efforts will begin in just a few years from the initial missions.
Another U.S. company, Planetary Resources (PR), is also very interested in asteroid mining. The CEO says, “You can concentrate that solar energy and heat up the surface of the asteroid and literally bake off the water in the same way you’d bake a clay pot.” Both DSI and PR believe that asteroids can supply materials that could be used to build huge complex structures that would be impossible to launch from the surface of the Earth.
Mining of the Moon and asteroids for critical materials will be necessary as the human race moves beyond the world of our birth and out into the solar system.
The International Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states that no country can claim to have ownership of extraterrestrial territory. The treaty also said that any materials returned from space were the common property of humanity and would need to be shared with other nations.
In 2016, President Obama signed a new law which grants private citizens the ownership rights of materials returned from space to the Earth. It is hoped that this new law will encourage the commercial exploitation of space resources by nations and private space companies.
Space companies say that water is a key resource for the exploration and exploitation of space. It can be used for drinking, shielding against harmful radiation, as a propellant for spacecraft, broken down into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel. Water will be critical for any attempt to place permanent colonies on the lunar surface, an intention that has already been expressed by some nations on Earth including the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
The search for water on the Moon will be carried out in deep craters, crevices, and caves on the lunar surface where it is protected from evaporation or sublimation by the harsh light of the lunar day. If water can be found and mined on the Moon in large and accessible quantities on the lunar surface, the Moon could become a refueling station for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system.
There are already plans for the construction of an international “Gateway” space station orbiting the Moon to be used as a platform for the construction of spacecraft and the launching of missions into deep space. A reliable source of water from the Moon would be critical to the success of this project.
The platinum group of metals which includes iridium, palladium and platinum are considered to be much more abundant on the Moon than on Earth. These metals have important uses in electronic devices. They could be returned to Earth or they could be used on the Moon to construct electronic devices for deep space missions.
One of the abundant lunar resources that has ignited a lot of interest is helium-3. This non-radioactive isotope of helium could be the key to developing commercial nuclear fusion. It could produce abundant energy with no radioactive waste. It is very rare on Earth but abundant on the lunar surface. Helium-3 is created in the Sun and carried out across the solar system by the solar wind. The radiation belts above the Earth prevent helium-3 from reaching the Earth’s surface but it has been falling on the Moon for billions of years. A Chinese science advisor has said that there is so much helium-3 on the surface of the Moon that it could satisfy all conceivable human energy needs for thousands of years.
The mining, refining and return of lunar resources to Earth could be of great benefit to our civilization if they can be carried out reliably and safely. And, of course, they must be able to compete with such resources from terrestrial sources.
Recently I wrote about the shortage of plutonium-238 which is used to provide power to U.S. satellites on deep space missions. Today, I am going to write about a different use of nuclear isotopes for space exploration.
NASA probes to Mars have included equipment to detect signs of current or ancient life on Mars. The scientists are not expecting to find anything more complex than singled celled life, if that. In analyzing the astronomical bodies in our solar system, it is thought that Europa, a moon of Jupiter may harbor more complex life. Some scientists think that there may be complex multicellular life there.
The surface of Europa is covered in ice that can be from a mile and a half thick to eighteen miles thick. It has been speculated that there may be a salty liquid ocean on Europa beneath the ice. We do not have definitive proof of the existence of such an ocean, but we have witnessed periodic eruptions of liquid water from the surface of Europa. NASA scientists believe that the best way to penetrate the ice to the probable ocean beneath Europa is by employing a nuclear power robot that could melt its way through the ice.
The Glenn Research Center at NASA is home to the multidisciplinary COMPASS team which was created to develop technology to meet the challenges of space exploration. The COMPASS team has carried out a conceptual study about technologies which would be able to penetrate the icy surface of Europa. They feel that a “tunnelbot” would be the best bet.
Nuclear energy is the most compact and efficient energy source that can be utilized for space exploration. The tunnelbot does not even have to contain a nuclear reactor although such a reactor was one of the possible designs that were produced by the study. The simplest design for the tunnelbot would be to contain bricks of radioactive material in a tube-shaped probe with a round tip. As the heat from the radioactivity turned the ice to slush beneath the probe, the probe would slowly sink down through the ice. A lander would drop the probe onto the surface of Europa and a cable containing fiber optic string to carry information back to the lander would be uncoiled behind the probe as it sank into the ice.
The tunnelbot would contain instruments that would take samples of the liquid water in the tunnel as the probe melted through the ice. It would also sample the underside of the ice if the probe reaches the predicted ocean as well as samples of the water-ice interface where the surface of the ocean meets the icy ceiling.
Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Andrew Dombard from the University of Illinois at Chicago is a member of the COMPASS team. He said, “Estimates of the thickness of the ice shell range between 2 and 30 kilometers (1.2 and 18.6 miles), and is a major barrier any lander will have to overcome in order to access areas we think have a chance of holding biosignatures representative of life on Europa. We didn’t worry about how our tunnelbot would make it to Europa or get deployed into the ice. We just assumed it could get there and we focused on how it would work during descent to the ocean.”
The proposal for the tunnelbot was presented to the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC this week by the COMPASS team. Now the proposal will go to Congress for possible inclusion in a future NASA budget. This may be difficult to accomplish. The main advocate for the tunnelbot project in Congress was Texas Republican John Culberson who lost his seat in the House of Representatives in the November election. President Trump has shown no interest in funding a Europa lander. On the other hand, Democrats now control the House of Representatives which is the place where all budget bills must originate. Democrats have been more prone to fund NASA projects than Republicans in the past.
Critics of the project say that it was more a matter of a project that some of the members of Congress wanted to fund than a project that could stand on its scientific merits alone. On the other hand, supporters of the project say that there would need to be a long lead time for such a project and it would be best to start working on such a project as soon as possible.
The Europa Clipper mission is a space probe that will fly to Europa and go into orbit around it. It will orbit Europa at altitudes as low as sixteen miles. The purpose of the mission is to map the surface of Europa in detail and to attempt to carry out a chemical analysis of the plumes of liquid water being ejected into space. The mission has received initial funding and it is hoped that it can be ready for launch by 2022. It will take six years for the probe to reach Europa and go into orbit.
The Europa Clipper mission might add important information to our knowledge of Europa that could be useful in the planning for a tunnelbot mission. Hopefully, Congress will find the will and the funds to begin work on the Europa tunnelbot mission soon.
There has been much speculation about the existence of life beyond the Earth. It would be a very important scientific discovery to find life and especially complex life in the oceans under the ice on Europa. It would certainly have a profound impact on our understanding of life and its origins. A big question will be just how much life on Europa would resemble life on Earth. If there is a complex ecosystem in the oceans of Europa, there is the question of how much damage the radioactive materials could do to the life under the ice.
Potential contamination carried by space vehicles is a major concern to the public and private space industry. Satellites and space craft components are manufactured in clear rooms to prevent the possibility of biological contamination of astronomical bodies. However, recently a new type of contamination was discovered. SpaceX cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) are apparently contaminating the outside of Station with gases carried from Earth to orbit.
In early 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried a Dragon capsule to rendezvous with the ISS. One of the pieces of equipment in the supply capsule was the SAGE III. This device was designed to measure ozone molecules and aerosols in the atmosphere of the Earth. SAGEs I and II had already documented the growth of holes in the Earths ozone layer and the shrinking of the holes after the elimination of the use of Freon.
SAGE III is extremely sensitive. One of the concerns with such sensitivity is that environmental contamination could affect its readings. To combat this, the device contains contamination sensors. Following the delivery of the SAGE III to the ISS and its installation, the subsequent arrivals of Dragon supply capsules triggered these contamination sensors. These Dragon capsules were outgassing something that was affecting the function of the SAGE III.
New pieces of equipment can outgas molecules that have migrated from the interior of the equipment to their surfaces. This can result in a greasy film forming in the neighborhood of the equipment. In the case of the ISS, molecules delivered by the Dragon capsules were adhering to the SAGE III.
This same problem was discovered when components of the Hubble Space Telescope were returned to Earth. The contamination outgassed from the body of the Hubble degraded the ability of the instruments to detect ultraviolet light which was critical to the Hubble mission.
While NASA has dealt with such contamination for decades, the situation with the Dragon capsules is new. NASA is outsourcing more and more work to private space companies. It is critical for the success of such joint ventures to work that NASA be able to depend on private space contractors to deal properly with their own sources of contamination.
Contamination detection on the SAGE III is carried out by eight “thermoelectric quartz crystal microbalances” that each contain two crystals. Each crystal oscillates at a frequency that is related to the mass of the sensor. If any of the crystals gain mass from such sources as the Dragon capsules, its frequency is altered.
When the SAGE III arrived at the ISS, each pair of crystals in the microbalances oscillated at exactly the same frequency. One of the two crystals is exposed to space and the other is protected by a container. If the exposed crystal gains mass, this changes its frequency, so the two crystals are no longer in synchronization. This results in a signal being generated that there is contamination in the environment. There are other highly sensitive sensors on the SAGE III that could be affected by contamination. Subsequent arrivals of Dragon capsules caused the microbalances to register up to seventy times the allowed level of contaminants.
At first it was suspected that solar panels on the Dragon capsules were outgassing but this was tested and eliminated as a contamination source. Now it is suspected that the body of the Dragon capsule is the source. Altogether, seven sensitive areas or instruments on the ISS may be in dangers from the contamination.
NASA and SpaceX are working on identifying the source of the outgassing from the Dragon capsules. One independent analyst believes that the source of the outgassing is the paint on the outside of the Dragon capsules. One family of paints used on spacecraft such as the Dragon capsules is known to breakdown and outgas if it is contaminated and then exposed to ultraviolet light which is plentily in space.
NASA is reluctant to share information on the problem and actions taken to prevent such outgassing in the future. Reporters questions have been gone unanswered and documents about the problem have been removed from public access. It would be better for all involved if NASA was more open about this problem.
There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately with respect to whether we should create a colony on the Moon first or send missions to explore and colonize Mars first. We have billionaires such as Elon Musk who are dedicated to getting human beings to Mars. National space programs have sent a lot of robot probes to Mars with a U.S. probe landing just a few days ago. However, recent announcements of space-faring nation suggest that the Moon will be getting a lot of attention that Mars in the near future.
Jim Bridenstine is the NASA Administrator. He says that the U.S. will have a continuous manned presence on the Moon within ten years. This lunar presence will help lay the groundwork for future missions to Mars. In a recent interview, he said, “Right now we’re building a space station, we call it ‘Gateway,’ that’s going to be in orbit around the moon — think of it as a reusable command module where we can have human presence in orbit around the moon. From there we want reusable landers that go back and forth to the surface of the moon. We think we can achieve this in about 10 years, the idea being prove the capability, retire the risk, prove the human physiology and then go on to Mars.”
In his interview with the Rising TV show, he revealed details of NASA’s plan to collaborate with nine U.S. commercial space firm to travel to the Moon. He said that he hopes that the creation of a commercial marketplace called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program (CLIPS) will help stimulate innovation in the exploration and exploitation of space. One of the goals of CLIPS is to develop technology that can be used to create the continuous presence on the Moon mentioned above.
Bridenstine also said in the interview, “At the end of the day, what we’re doing is we’re going to buy services where we’re going to have multiple companies competing on cost and innovation to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon — right now we’re just talking about scientific instruments, not large payloads, but building the capability that then feeds forward to larger landers that would include humans.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has issued the Space Policy Directive which calls for a manned return to the Moon. Bridenstine says that the importance of the Trump policy directive lies its support for building a sustainable and continuing presences on the Moon in the next ten years.
The Moon is much closer to the Earth than Mars. The Moon is always on the same side of the Sun as the Earth while the distance to Mars makes huge changes as the planets whirl about the Sun. The Earth and Mars are only aligned on the same side of the Sun every twenty-six months. This means that current planning for Mars missions will have to allow for astronauts to spend two years on Mars after they land before they can return to Earth.
Bridenstine says, “The moon represents a proving ground, it’s the way we can reduce risk, we can prove technology, we can prove human physiology, we can develop the capabilities to utilize the resources of the moon to survive on the surface of the moon and then we take all of those capabilities and we replicate them at Mars. This week we landed on the surface of Mars. It’s the eighth time in the history of humanity that anyone has landed on the surface of Mars softly with a mission that’s capable of carrying forward.”
NASA is considering selling seats on the launch vehicles that will be used to ferry passengers to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA would like to have additional sources of funding beyond that provided by the U.S. government for government missions.
Russia has already sent rich individuals into Earth orbit for millions of dollars per flight. There are several private companies which have expressed the intent to take tourists into space. NASA has only allowed a few civilian to ride the old Space Shuttles into space. One of those occasions ended in tragedy when a teacher named Christa McAuliffe was killed in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Two months ago, the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that he was creating a NASA advisory council with the purpose of increasing visibility of NASA among the public by working with space companies in the private sector. He said that he wants NASA and its astronauts “embedded into the American culture.” He also said that “The reality is, we’re in a new era now.”
Michael Gold is the vice president of regulatory affairs and policy at Maxar Technologies and the head of the new NASA advisory council. He said, “Just like in the early days of aviation with barnstorming, these initial activities will help build the infrastructure and the foundation that can lead to future innovations that, frankly, we cannot imagine right now.”
The proposal to allow paid civilian space flights was put forth by a subcommittee of the new NASA advisory council. The proposal is in the early stages of development. Any such proposal will have to be approved by the whole NASA advisory council and then sent over to the NASA Administrator.
One of the things that has prompted NASA to consider revenue streams beyond government appropriations was the recent activity at the White House to end the direct funding of the ISS. The President would like to see the ISS become a commercial enterprise. This proposal has been met with stiff resistance from Congress. There are serious questions about how such commercialization could be realized and how it would be funded.
Selling seats on missions to the ISS would only bring in a few tens of millions of dollars at best. NASA hopes that such income could be used to help the agency “facilitate commercialization of space platforms in and beyond” low Earth orbit.
Currently NASA rules prohibit NASA from endorsing particular products or services. Another proposal from the advisory council subcommittee released Friday included the idea of commercializing the NASA logo. Today NASA does not put their logo on the private rockets that ferry cargo to the ISS or launch satellites because they are afraid that this use of their logo would appear as an implicit endorsement of the space companies that supply launch services to NASA. They might also allow astronauts to appear in television commercials to promote NASA’s “brand.” Another idea would be to sell naming rights for NASA launch vehicles.
The NASA Administrator said Friday that it would be a “heavy lift” to achieve such goals. The subcommittee approved language recommending “space-based promotional activities” that “could enhance NASA’s public profile and encourage youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Until recently, the Chinese space program was government run. China opened up its space exploration and exploitation to private companies in 2014. In the last few years, private companies have entered the arena in China and are pushing hard to catch up to the private space industry that is thriving in the United States. Now there are eighty commercial Chinese space-technology startups. China is hoping to snag a piece of the three hundred and fifty-billion dollar global commercial space marketplace.
Most of the eighty Chinese companies are constructing satellites and related software applications. There are ten Chinese companies who are more ambitious. They are working on the development of launch vehicles and hoping to compete with companies such as SpaceX in the U.S. for the growing global market for the launch of satellites.
Landscape Technology Corporation (LTC) was started in 2015 by Roger Zhang, a former banker with ties to major Chinese banks. He recruited a group of experienced engineers who had worked on the Long March family of rockets that are the foundation of the Chinese government space program. LTC has raised about seventy-two million dollars from private investors and city governments.
Landscape Technology Corporation had hoped to become the first Chinese company to launch a rocket into Earth orbit last month. However, its Vermillion Bird rocket was unable to successfully carry a satellite to orbit.
Zhang said that LTC needs another one hundred and fifteen million dollars of capital in order to actually start commercial operations. The LTC rocket that failed its first mission could only carry a six-hundred and sixty pound satellite to orbit. LTC is currently working on a larger and more complex launch vehicle that will be able to carry an eight thousand and eight-hundred pound satellite to orbit. This rocket will be a serious contender with SpaceX which can carry a ten-thousand pound payload into orbit.
SpaceX charges about sixty-two million dollars to launch a payload with its Falcon 9 rocket. Zhang says that the new LTC rocket will be able to carry out a launch for about fifteen million dollars. While this is considerably cheaper than the Falcon 9, the LTC rocket can only reach lower Earth orbits than the Falcon 9.
One Space, a major rival of LTC, was started with one hundred and sixteen million dollars of capital from private investors and state-owned funds. Now One Space has the opportunity to be the first private rocket to carry a satellite into orbit in late 2018. If they fail, there are more private Chinese space companies lining up for launches in 2019.
Many of the new Chinese private space companies are working on CubeSats. These are very small satellites that are based on a unit size cube about four inches on a side. These satellites are relatively cheap to build and can be launched twenty at a time in a single launch vehicle. They can be distributed in large sets to provide wide coverage for communication and GPS applications.
Beijing-based ZeroG Labs is a private Chinese space company that builds and sells CubeSats. They are able to sell a single CubeSat for about one hundred thousand dollars which is very cheap when compared to full sized satellites. Zhang Bei is the founder of ZeroG Labs. He has a background in information technology. ZeroG Labs raised about three million dollars in its first round of investment. It already has three CubeSats in Earth orbit with plans to launch one hundred and thirty-two more CubeSats by 2022. CubeSats can provide remote sensing and Earth observation services for big companies. CubeSats will open up many new opportunities for Chinese space companies.
While the Chinese started late in private commercial space companies. They are working hard to catch up with a lot of assistance from the Chinese government.
There are many threats to human existence on Earth. There are inactive super volcanoes that could erupt and kill billions of people. Climate change is not as dramatic but does pose an existential threat. Comets or asteroids impacts could devastate the surface of the planet and wipe out the entire ecosystem. The human race could start a nuclear war that would result in the death of billions and the end of human civilization. A natural or artificial plague could sweep across the Earth, wiping out a large percent of the human population. The continued existence of human civilization with billions of people is not guaranteed.
SpaceLife Orgin is a biotech startup located in San Francisco, California. They are working to enable human reproduction in space as an insurance policy in the face of all these existential dangers to human life on Earth. They have three missions planned for the next few years.
The first mission of SpaceLife is called “Mission Arc.” They intend to launch the mission in 2020. The core of the mission is one thousand protected tubes containing human reproductive cells in special radiation proof Ark containers. The cells, male sperm and female eggs, will be harvested in approved and supervised IVF clinics around the world. The cells will be vitrified by cooling them with cryopreservative chemicals to prevent the formation of ice crystals. The Arks are then stored in secure locations around the globe and in Earth orbit.
The second mission of SpaceLife is called “Mission Lotus”. It is being planned for launch in 2021. SpaceLife is developing a new proprietary technology they refer to as a “Space-Embryo-Incubator”. These incubators will be sent into space with human sperm and eggs. After they have been launched into space, the sperm and eggs will be combined to start the formation of embryos. After four days of development, the embryos will be returned to Earth and checked. Those embryos that are developing normally will be implanted in their mothers for normal pregnancies.
The third SpaceLife mission is called “Mission Cradle”. It is scheduled for launch in 2024 providing that the previous two missions are successful. The purpose of this mission is for a pregnant woman to give birth in space. During a twenty-four to thirty-six hour mission, a child will be born two hundred and fifty miles above the Earth. A trained team of medical experts will be on the mission to support the delivery. The risks to the mother and child will be reduced as much as possible.
While the desire to take steps to prevent the extinction of human life of Earth is a noble one, there are a number of issues that could cause problems for the SpaceLife Missions. There is a great deal of dangerous radiation in space that can cause biological damage. Zero gravity has negative influences on human health. Disease causing bacteria become more virulent in space. Being launched into space is very stressful on a human body. There will be danger to a pregnant woman enduring such stress beyond the usual stress to an astronaut. Returning from orbit is also stressful and it might pose threat to the mother and/or newly born baby. It will be interesting to see what happens during these SpaceLife Missions if they are, in fact, carried out.
I have blogged before about the effects of space travel on human health. There are a variety of negative effects on different organs in the human body caused by either zero gravity or space radiation. Today I am going to report on a study of the brains of Russian cosmonauts following their time spent in orbit around the Earth.
Floris Wuyts is a neuroscientist at the University of Antwerp. He led a team that has just published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. The brains of ten Russian cosmonauts were scanned using a magnetic resonance imaging prior to their being sent to the International Space Station. Nine days after their return, they were scanned again. All of the cosmonauts are male with a mean age of forty-four. The average time spent in the ISS was one hundred and seventy-nine days. Seven of the ten also had their brains scanned about two hundred days after their flight to investigate their recovery from time in space.
The gray matter in the brain consists of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil (dendrites and myelinated as well as unmyelinated axons), glial cells (astrocytes and oligodendrocytes), synapses, and capillaries. What the researchers found was that there was a reduction of up to three and three tenths of a percent in gray matter during the time the cosmonauts spent at the ISS. The follow up scan after two hundred days found that while gray matter had rebounded, it had still not returned to the level found in the preflight scans.
White matter in the brain consists of bundles of nerve fibers sheathed in myelin. The myelin sheaths increase the speed of transmissions between different parts of the brain. It turns out that the volume of white matter in the brain did not changes while the cosmonauts were in orbit. However, after the two hundred day waiting period, the brain scans revealed that white matter had decreased after the cosmonauts returned from orbit. The research team believe that long term changes in cerebrospinal fluid following return to Earth might be involved but more research is needed to verify that.
The cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain was found to have increased during the time that the cosmonauts spent in orbit. The primary focus of this research was to track changes in the volumes of brain tissue. No work was done to find out if these changes had an effect on the cognitive abilities or the behavior of the cosmonauts.
Angelique Van Ombergen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. She said that it was not clear why the lack of gravity in orbit caused these specific changes to the volume of brain tissue. The best current theory suggests that without gravity pulling fluids down in the body, the fluids move up into the torso and head of the astronaut while in orbit. She said in an email that, “We believe all the changes we see here are due to this fluid shift.”
Van Ombergen also said, “The neat thing about MRI brain scans is that they allow multiple aspects of the brain to be investigated. The current study is only approaching one aspect (the tissue volumes), but we can also study white matter tracts more in detail, as well as brain connectivity.”
More astronauts are being recruited by the research team. Possible effects on cognitive ability from prolonged space flight will be studied next. Van Ombergen said, “A priority, in my opinion, is that future studies should also be set up to look at how these brain changes translate to the clinical performance of astronauts,” she explained. “For example: does it impact their cognition? How exactly can these brain changes be related to visual changes in space travelers? Such questions are necessary in order to better understand what’s going on and to prepare astronauts better for future missions.”