Sabre Jet-Rocket Engine Is Under Development

        Reaction Engines Limited (REL) is a company based in Culham in Oxforshire, U.K. They are working on a novel propulsion system that can function as both a jet engine for flight in atmosphere and rocket engine for flights in space. The company hopes that the engine they are developing will transform the space launch market as well as permit hypersonic travel to destinations on Earth.

       In the past three years, REL has raised about a hundred and forty million dollars. This includes eighty-four million dollar from the British government, twenty eight million dollars from BAE Systems and thirty six million dollars from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Baillie Gifford Asset Management and Woodford Investment Management.

      In an interview, the REL CEO said, "Rolls are super-positive about the technology. They want us to be independent and innovative, and to push our technology as hard as possible. And Boeing - that's amazing. They are the world's biggest aerospace company, have decades of expertise and future plans that, for us I'm sure, will be really exciting." 

       REL is working on the Sabre engine. This engine is intended to take off like a plane from a airport and soar into orbit around the Earth. It would perform like a regular jet engine up to a speed of Mach 5.5 which is over five times the speed of sound. Then it would convert to rocket mode for the rest of the ascent to orbit.

       The design of the Sabre engine includes a compact pre-cooler heat-exchanger that cools a one thousand degrees Centigrade incoming airflow to minus one hundred and fifty degrees Centigrade in one hundredth of a second. This feature allows the Sabre to use atmospheric oxygen instead of having to carry its own oxidizer during the first part of a trip to orbit. This reduces the weight of the vehicle significantly. Most of the press about the Sabre engine talk about it in the context of an orbital launch system but it could also be used for fast trips on Earth.

       The Vice President of HorizonX Ventures, the investment branch of Boeing, said “As Reaction Engines unlocks advanced propulsion that could change the future of air and space travel, we expect to leverage their revolutionary technology to support Boeing's pursuit of hypersonic flight.”

       Rolls-Royce has been involved in space planes since the 1980s when they worked on a system known as Hotol. When technical problems sank that project, Rolls-Royce pulled out but they never lost their interest in space planes and now they are back. The Rolls-Royce CTO said, “We are delighted to become a strategic investor in REL, an innovative UK company that is helping push the boundaries of aviation technology. We look forward to working with REL and assisting with the development of their technology, and we plan to incorporate this technology into our own future products.”

         This summer in Colorado, REL will begin testing the pre-cooler technology with simulations of the hot airflow that the system will encounter at hypersonic speeds. The tests will be carried out in collaboration with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). By 2020, REL hopes to be able to demonstrate the full Sabre cycle. The next step will be to put the Sabre engine in an actual vehicle.

       The REL CEO said, “The team here is outstanding. We have some of the most talented engineers I've ever worked with, a high percentage of whom are women engineers; and we have a great apprenticeship program. It feels like we're a good-news story and I want to keep it that way.”

Model of a Sabre engine:


Russia Working On The Nudol Anti-Satellite Missile System

        Russia has been working on an anti-satellite weapon since 2015. The missile is called the Nudol or PL19 and it has been tested six times since then. The most recent test took place this month. For this test, the missile was fired from its transporter. There is great concern that Russia may test the new weapon on a real satellite in stable low-Earth orbit.

      China tested such a weapon on an old weather satellite in 2007. The resulting explosion generated over two thousand pieces of debris which are still circling the Earth. These fragments pose a threat to other satellites and some will orbit the earth for decades. There was a wave on condemnation around the world after the Chinese test.

        The Nudol interceptor missile is designed to accelerate rapidly out of the Earth’s atmosphere and strike the target which is assumed to be nearly overhead from the missile launch site. It does not carry any explosives and relies on the kinetic energy of the collision to destroy the targeted satellite. This is referred to technically as a direct-ascent kinetic interception.

       The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in the development and testing of this kind of weapon. Most of the U.S. work has been done in the hopes of being able to destroy incoming nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles before they reach their target. This mission is quite similar to the anti-satellite systems under development.

       Anti-missile defenses are designed to blow up incoming missiles as they are descending to Earth after being launched. An anti-satellite missile targets a satellite in low Earth orbit traveling at seventeen thousand miles per hour or more. Despite these differences of speed and trajectory, in 2008 the U.S. Lake Erie cruiser successfully launched an Aegis missile designed for intercepting descending missiles to destroy a falling intelligence satellite.

       China has been testing the DN-3, its newest anti-satellite missile in the opposite direction. This February, they used the DN-3 against a DF-21 missile in a test.

        Unlike the U.S. and China, historically, the Soviets and then the Russians concentrated on using nuclear tip missiles to take out incoming missiles. They fell behind the U.S. and China in the development of a high precision kinetic kill vehicle to use against satellites. With the Nudol, the Russians are joining the anti-satellite weapon race. Russia also has the new S-500 surface-to-air missile system and they may revive an old design for an air-launched missile. The Nudol, the S-500 and the new system based on the old design could all be used to shoot down satellites.

      While nuclear tipped missiles could be used to take out satellites, there is likely be damage to other satellites in the same orbit. In addition, there will be a much bigger generation of debris that with a precision kinetic weapons. In 1962, the U.S. Starfish Prime test detonated a nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere. That test destroyed at least six satellites. The low Earth orbit is much more crowded now.

       In 1983, the Soviet Union responded to the Reagan administration’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative by declaring a self-imposed moratorium on anti-satellite testing. The Soviets and the Russians honored this moratorium until recently.

       Last May, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence said that both Russia and China “perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems.” Both of these countries “increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine.”

       Unfortunately, the U.S. relies much more heavily on satellites for surveillance and communications in a conflict than either Russia or China. This make the U.S. more vulnerable to anti-satellite systems. Hopefully, the U.S. can capitalize on the global revulsion to the idea of attacking satellites in an armed conflict.   


Deep Space Industries Comet Propulsion System Utilizes Water As A Fuel For CubeSats and Microsatellites

       Deep Space Industries is a California company dedicated to asteroid mining. It was founded in 2013 and also has offices in Florida and Luxembourg. While their ultimate goal is probably decades in the future, in the meantime they are working on innovative propulsion systems.

       The Comet CubeSat and Microsatellite Propulsion System is one of DSI commercial products. The system uses water as a propellant. The water is heated and expelled from the spacecraft to provide thrust to adjust orbits.

       The Comet system provides eighty percent of the specific impulse of dangerous flammable propellant systems at about twenty percent of the cost. It utilizes less electrical energy that ion propulsion systems. The Comet system is approved to fly on multiple launch vehicles as a part of a rideshare spacecraft. No flammable propellants are allowed on such rideshare launches. The Comet system is designed to be easy to integrate with a variety of small spacecraft including CubeSats and micro-satellites.

       DSI has a contract to produce its Comet system for BlackSky Earth observation satellites. The contract calls for a first order of twenty Comet propulsion systems. Twenty of these satellites are scheduled to be launched by 2020. This is the first phase of an Earth observation system managed by BlackSky which is a subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries based in Seattle, WA. Globlal-1, the first BlackSky satellite will be launched in 2018.

       Spaceflight Industries is involved in a partnership with The Space Alliance which is a French-Italian joint venture between Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio. This joint venture is setting up a new company named LeoStella. Half of the new company is owned by Spaceflight Industries and half is owned by Thales Alenia Space. LeoStella will construct the fleet of satellites for the BlackSky project. Ultimately, the plan is for there to be sixty BlackSky satellites in orbit.

        The vice president of space operations for Spaceflight Industries said in a press release, “The launch-safe propulsion features of the Comet system are well-aligned with BlackSky’s performance needs to enable affordable and flexible satellite systems. We are looking forward to working with the DSI team on this and future projects.” The DSI CEO said that, “Customers like LeoStella are exactly why we developed the Comet propulsion system.” He went on to say that the low-pressure, non-toxic Comet system is a good choice for the BlackSky project.

       DSI says that the Comet system is the first product in what they plan to be a whole line of “green” propulsion systems for small satellites. One of the reasons that DSI is using water as a propellant is because it is believed that water will be a readily available resource on asteroids. This means that spacecraft that utilize water as a fuel could be refueled on asteroids.

      DSI is also developing the Meteor system to replace bipropellants currently used to maneuver spacecraft. The Meteor system fuel and oxidizer do not spontaneously burn when combined and are non-toxic. They are suitable for rideshare which is not true for many bipropellant systems. The Meteor fuel and oxidizer are only about ten percent of the cost of a popular bipropellant fuel. Both the fuel and the oxidizers can be extracted from asteroids.


The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Has Filed A Patent For An Autonomous Return System For A Spacesuit

       Space is a very dangerous place. Spacecraft are fragile environments for astronauts with many potentially threats to their safety. As dangerous as spacecraft may be, even more dangerous to astronauts are spacewalks where they exit the spacecraft in special spacesuits. One of the biggest concerns is the possibility that some thing could go wrong with the spacesuit and leave that astronaut stranded is space with no way to get back to the spacecraft. Researchers at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a company located in Cambridge, MA are working on the problem.

      The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit research and development organization. They specialize in “design, development, and deployment of advanced technology solutions to problems in national security, space exploration, health care and energy.” Draper staff have expertise in the areas “…of guidance, navigation, and control technologies and systems; fault-tolerant computing; advanced algorithms and software solutions; modeling and simulation; and microelectromechanical systems and multichip module technology.”

      Draper scientists filed a patent last December for a spacesuit that will guarantee that astronauts on spacewalks will always be able to get back to their spacecraft safely. Keven Duda, a space systems engineer at Draper, has been studying astronauts on the International Space Station. Duda and his team have developed a “self-return” system that can return an astronaut to a spacecraft with no external assistance.

       If an astronaut encounters problems on a spacewalk, the astronaut, another crew member on the spacecraft or someone on the ground can trigger a system of thrusters built into the suit which will autonomously send the suit with the astronaut back to a predetermined safe location. A reporter for TechCrunch says, "It's designed around the challenges of navigating in outer space, where there is no GPS, and it has to take into account conditions that might impact survivability, including remaining oxygen level and fuel available for the thrusters. In the zero-gravity environment of space, astronauts can become confused, disoriented.”

       Manual return systems have been developed but, considering the problems of disorientation or injury, Draper concluded that an automated system was needed. Such a system has to be able to determine the exact location of the suit with no GPS. Next it has to compute a return trajectory while taking into account time required, estimated oxygen consumption for the trip, and, finally, safety and clearance requirements to reach the spacecraft and dock successfully. And it may have to do all this without any input from the astronaut who may be unconscious.

       Draper believes that there are other potential applications of their patent beyond returning astronauts to safety. Draper researchers say, “Applications in the design of navigation systems like Draper's 'take me home' system could serve as an added safety measure for first responders and firefighters as they navigate smoke-filled rooms, skydivers hurtling toward Earth and scuba divers who might become disoriented in deep water.” The patent discussion says, “the self-return system may be implemented in the suit of a free-falling skydiver and be configured to assist the sky diver in controlling her freefall to land in a desired location if the skydiver became disoriented.”


Swarm Technologies Suspected Of Illegally Launching Unlicensed CubeSats on Indian Launch Vehicle - 3 of 3 Parts

Part Three of Three Parts (Please read Part One and Part Two first)

        In mid-January of this year, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was launched from a launch facility on the eastern coast of India. The primary payload of the PSLV consisted of big Indian mapping satellite. As is often the case with commercial launches these days, dozens of tiny satellites known as CubeSats were packed in around the big mapping satellite. Planetary Resources, a Seattle-based asteroid mining company contributed a CubeSat to test prospecting tools for asteroid mining. Telesat is a Canadian company which added a communications Cubesat to the payload. Carbonite, a British company, sent a Cubesat in the launch to take high-definition video of the surface of the Earth. And many more Cubesat from other companies rode the PSLV into orbit.

       There were four Cubesats launched by the PSLV that raised some serious questions. The These Cubesats were named SpaceBee-1,2,3, and 4. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which operates the launch facility and launched the PSLV described the four satellites as “two-way satellite communication and data relay” devices from the United States. No organization was listed as the operators of the satellites. All the ISRO had to say about those four CubeSats beyond the brief description was that they reached orbit successfully.

        The IEEE Spectrum has identified Silicon Valley startup named Swarm Technologies founded in 2016 as the owners of the four mysterious CubeSats. Apparently the SpaceBee satellites were constructed and launched to demonstrate technology for a new space-based Internet of Things communication network.

      Swarm says that its new network based on the SpaceBee satellites could reduce the cost of satellite communications by orders of magnitude over current technology. The Swarm system should be able to provide cheap world wide tracking of ships, cars, truck and rail cars, enable new agricultural technologies, and lower the cost of connectivity for “humanitarian” efforts anywhere on Earth. The four SpaceBee satellites are intended to be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s “prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms. They have the capability to exchanged data with ground stations for up to eight years.

       The reason that the launch of the SpaceBee satellites is of interest is the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had rejected Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites at the end of 2017 on the grounds of safety concerns. The FCC feared that the SpaceBee satellites would pose a serious risk of collision with other spacecraft in Earth orbit. If the SpaceBee satellites are really the experimental satellites constructed by Swarm, it will be the first case of the unauthorized launch of commercial satellites in history.

       The FCC has notified Swarm that it was going to investigate “the impact of the applicant’s apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites… on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee.” Unless Swarm can convince the FCC that the launch of the SpaceBee satellites do not pose a risk to other spacecraft, the FCC may not issue the company permission for future launches. On the other hand, there are other countries such as India that will launch future Swarm satellites regardless of rulings by the FCC.

      If the SpaceBee satellites were launched illegally, that would call into question the ability and the willingness of secondary satellite “ride-share” companies and foreign launch to comply with U.S. space regulations. It is unclear exactly what would happen to the international space industry if it bifurcated into U.S. authorized and unauthorized foreign launch facilities.

SWARM Technology SpaceBEEs:

Swarm Technologies Suspected Of Illegally Launching Unlicensed CubeSats on Indian Launch Vehicle - 2 of 3 Parts

Part Two of Three Parts (Please read Part One first)

       Swarm was fully aware of the size issue and they placed a GPS device in each satellite that would broadcast its location if its location was requested. They also covered each of the four small one inch by four inches faces with special new passive radar reflective material. Swarm claims that this material will make the radar profile of the satellites ten times bigger and, therefore, easier to detect.

       The FCC was skeptical about the Swarm proposal. During last summer there was correspondence between the FCC and Swarm. In a letter sent by the FCC to Swarm, by Anthony Serafini, the chief of the FCC’s Experimental Licensing Branch. He pointed out that the radar reflector suggested by Swarm only worked in a particular narrow radar frequency band that is only a small part of the Space Surveillance Network of the U.S. He was also concerned that GPS data would only be transmitted if the satellite was functioning. So if the satellite failed because of a hardware or software malfunction, it would become just a small piece of space debris.

       He wrote, “In the absence of tracking at the same level as available for [1U] objects… the ability of operational spacecraft to reliably assess the need for and plan effective collision avoidance maneuvers will be reduced or eliminated. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest.” Needless to say, the FCC rejected the application from Swarm.

        In January, Swarm submitted a new application for launch of four new satellites with a standard 1 U CubeSat size. Swarm said in the application that they had signed agreements with two Fortune 100 companies for Swarm to conduct paid pilot programs. They said that fifteen additional companies in agriculture, shipping and other markets would be closely monitoring the experiment. The U.S. military is also considering the use of the Swarm technology for “tracking and geo-locating a large number of items on the ground and at sea.”

      The new application from Swarm said that the new bigger satellites would be launched by Rocket Lab from New Zealand in April of 2018. The FCC approved the new application from Swarm in a few weeks.

       Swarm just released details of its market trials in another FCC application. It asked for permission to install two more downlink ground stations and as many as five hundred uplink gateways around the U.S. in the next year. Swarm said that they had contacted over one hundred and twenty-five. Swarm has also received a new NSF grant to provide cheap connectivity for humanitarian organizations. They also announced a partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center. Everything seemed to be on track for the startup.

       However, everything changed last Wednesday when Serafini sent a new letter to Swarm. In the letter, he revoked the application approval for the April Rocket Lab launch. He said that the FCC believes that Swarm went ahead and launched its original small satellites in spite of the fact that the FCC had explicitly forbidden it to do so.

Please read Part Three

Swarm Technologies Suspected Of Illegally Launching Unlicensed CubeSats on Indian Launch Vehicle - 1 of 3 Parts

Part One of Three Parts

       Swarm Technologies is a Silicon Valley startup based in Menlo Park, CA. It was created by two young aerospace engineers. The CEO is Sara Sangelo worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before moving to Google in 2016. The CFO is Benjamin Longmier who sold Aether Industries, his near-space balloon company, to Apple before becoming a teacher at the University of Michigan. He is also the co-founder of Apollo Fusion which is a company working on a new electric propulsion system for satellites.

       In order to work, the Internet of Things (IoT) must be able to connect with, track and facilitate the date exchange of billions of devices linked to the Internet. However, there is only partial Internet access in rural areas and underdeveloped areas and nations. There is no Internet connectivity on the world’s oceans.            

        Swarm is working on a new fleet of satellites to help connect the Internet of Things (IoT). They would use solar powered gateways to collect information from nearby Io
T devices via Bluetooth, LoRa, Wi-Fi or other future short-range communication standards for Internet connection. The collected information would be beamed to a Swarm satellite using VHF radio. When a Swarm satellite passed over a ground station connected to the Internet, it would beam down the collected IoT to the ground station for relay to the user.

       The data that is collected and relayed by the Swarm satellites is encrypted in both upload and download. The satellites would upload and download about once a minute depending on traffic and location. While Spanglo was a grad student at the University of Michigan, she wrote papers that described algorithm and models that were designed to maximize the flow of data over a Swarm style network.

       Swarm applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2016. The application said that Swarm integrated sensor and data relay technology was less that one thousandth of the mass and power as well as four hundred times cheaper that existing point to point satellite communication systems such as the Iridium system. Swarm has received over two hundred thousand dollars from the NSF to date.

       In April of 2017, Swarm filed its first application with the FCC to test four satellites that they called BEEs which is short for Basic Electronic Elements. Two ground stations were included in the application. Each satellite would be four inches wide, four inches deep and about one inch deep. There is a standard unit for small satellites which is referred to as a 1 Unit CubeSat. This unit is a four-inch cube. So, the Swarm satellites are considered to ¼ U CubeSats.

      Being able to launch four satellites in the space of one full CubeSat is intended to keep the price of the launches as low as possible. While it is true that small size will reduce launch costs, small size in itself is a problem once the satellite is in orbit. When objects in space are smaller than one standard CubeSat or a four-inch cube, they become very difficult to track. If an object that size impacted another satellite in orbit, the effect would be catastrophic.

Please read Part Two

Airbus and NASA Are Sending A Robot Head To The International Space Station

       I cover a lot of interesting new technology for use in space, but I have to admit that the device I am blogging about today looks and sounds like something out of a sci-fi comedy. Airbus and IBM are collaborating on what is being called CIMON which stands for Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN. It is a floating robot about the size of a medicine ball which is equipped with a IBM’s Watson AI system. CIMON weights about eleven pounds. It will use an air-propulsion system to move around in the microgravity of the ISS.

      Watson is a computer system that can answer questions present in natural language. It was built by IBM to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to the field of open domain question answering. Watson beat human champions at the TV game of Jeopardy in 2011. In 2013, IBM announced the first commercial application of Watson. This application was to help physicians at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, make decisions in lung cancer cases.

      Later this year, CIMON will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) to assist astronauts. CIMON will make use of its neural network artificial intelligence system in combination with face and voice recognition to assist astronauts working on the European Space Agency’s Horizons mission between June and October 2018. It is hoped that CIMON will not only improve the efficiency of astronauts but also reduce their stress. Cimon will also warn astronauts immediately of any technical problems which should help improve safety aboard the ISS.

       A full-sized display on the side of CIMON will show a robot face. Along with other features such as face and voice recognition, it is hoped that that astronauts will come to consider CIMON as another crew member. The chief IBM Watson architect said “CIMON’s digital face, voice and use of artificial intelligence will make it a ‘colleague’ to the crew members. This collegial ‘working relationship’ facilitates how astronauts work through their prescribed checklists of experiments, now entering into a genuine dialogue with their interactive assistant.”

       There have been other robots on the ISS before CIMON. In 2011, NASA sent a robot named Robonaut which was built by Dextrous Robotics Laboratory at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and sent to the ISS. Robonaut is a humanoid robot that was intended to carry out simple tasks aboard the ISS. Unfortunately, technical problems have resulted in it being mostly out of action since 2015. As a matter of fact, it has been packaged up for return to Earth for repairs.

       Another robot called Kirobo was built by Toyota, Dentsu (a Japanese advertising agency) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Kirobo is thirteen inches tall and weighs about two pounds. It accepted vocal commands to assist the Japanese astronaut Wakata Koichi at the ISS until 2015.

      The previous robots were not very intelligence and were intended to use tools to help the astronauts. CIMON is unique because it is using advanced artificial intelligence to assist the astronauts with information access and decision making.



Future NASA Missions - Part 4 of 4 Parts

Part 4 of 4 Parts (Please read Parts 1, 2 and 3 first)

       The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is a NASA observatory. It was developed to carry out wide field imaging and surveys of near infrared space. NASA hopes that it will be able to answer some important questions about exoplanet detection and dark energy. The telescope will have a primary mirror that is about eight feet in diameter. It will have a Wide Field instrument to provide a wide field of view that will be one hundred times wider than the Hubble infrared instrument. It will measure the light from a billion galaxies with the intent of finding more than twenty-five hundred exoplanets. It will also have a Coronograph instrument which will provide high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of a variety of nearby exoplanets.

      The WFIRST will be launched in the mid-2020s for a six-year mission. Two billion seven hundred million dollars has been budgeted for this mission.

       The NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) is a joint project between NASA and IRSO (Indian Space Research Organization). The project involves the development and launch of a dual frequency synthetic aperture radar satellite. It will mark the first time that a satellite has made use of two frequencies. It is designed to provide remote sensing for complex natural processes on our planet including the collapse of ice-sheets, the disturbance of ecosystems, and natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis.

       The ISRO will provide a S-band SAR (synthetic aperture radar) instrument, a spacecraft bus to provide support for the instrument, the launch vehicle and related services. NASA will provide a L-band SAR, a high-speed communication system, a payload data subsystem, a GPS receiver and a solid-state recorder. The satellite will weigh about fifty-seven hundred pounds and will be stabilized on three axes.

      The NISAR will be launched in the mid-2020s from India. One billion dollars has been budgeted for this mission.

      The Mars 2020 rover will be dedicated to the investigation of the geological processes that take place on the surface of Mars. It will look for the any life that may have existed in the past on Mars. It will study any biosignatures that may have been preserved in geological materials that are accessible to the rover. As it carries out its mission, it will stash samples of rocks and soils in caches on the Martian surface for the use of future missions.

       The basic design of the rover will the same as the Curiosity rover but it will carry different scientific instruments. The rover will help answer questions about any dangers that the dust on the Martian surface may hold. It will test technology designed to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide that constitutes most of the Martian atmosphere. The instrument package on the rover will include an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, ultraviolet Raman spectrometer, ground-penetrating radar, stereoscopic imaging system, and a solar powered helicopter drone. The rover will be powered by a thermoelectric generator containing radioisotopes.

        The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to be launched in July of 2020. Two and a half billion dollars have been budgeted for this project.

Artist’s concept of Curiosity Rover using laser on Martian surface:


Future NASA Missions - Part 3 of 4 Parts

Part 3 of 4 Parts (Please read Parts 1 and 2 first)

       The Lucy mission will explore a half dozen of the Trojan asteroids that are in the same solar orbit as Jupiter. The Psyche mission will investigate an unusual metal asteroid with the designation of 16 Psyche. They are going to study objects that formed in the early solar system. It is hoped that these missions will add to our knowledge about the formation of planets.

       The Lucy mission will study surface composition, surface geology, interior and bulk properties of six Trojan asteroids in the orbit of Jupiter. It will also determine the number, size-frequency distribution and location of dense rings.

       The Psyche mission will study a rare metal asteroid. Most asteroids are composed of rocks or ice. The 16 Psyche asteroid is composed metallic nickel and iron. The purpose of the mission is to investigate the elemental composition, remnant magnetic field, and gravity field of the asteroid.

      The Lucy mission will launch in 2021 and the Psyche mission will launch in 2023. Four hundred and fifty million dollars have been allocated for these two missions.

       The Europa Clipper spacecraft includes an obiter and a lander. The purpose of the mission is to study Europa which is a moon of Jupiter. One of the primary goals is to determine whether or not Europa could have conditions that would allow life to exist on the moon. Europa has an icy crust with a deep salty liquid water ocean beneath the ice. The Clipper will examine the distribution and chemistry of key organic chemicals as well as the formation of the icy surface. Special attention will be paid to areas where there are signs of current or recent activity. The craft will draw power from solar panels although the amount of sunlight in Jupiter’s orbit is a fraction of the amount of sunlight in Earth’s orbit. Some spacecraft are powered by a thermal battery containing plutonium, but it was decided that it was cheaper and more practical to use solar panels for the Clipper.

       The expected launch date for the Clipper mission is 2022. Two billion dollars has been allocated for this mission.

        The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a special experimental instrument built for use on the International Space Station. The CAL will use the microgravity environment of the ISS to analyze quantum phenomena. The microgravity permits longer observations of atoms. Mixtures of different types of atoms can be analyzed without any gravitation influences. Supercooled atoms can be more easily confined by magnetic fields on the ISS. The mission will also help researchers monitor the gravity of the Earth and other planets. This research might be instrumental in the design of advanced navigation systems.

       The initial phase of the mission will be one year with up to five years of extensions. It was scheduled to launch in 2017. Twelve million seven hundred thousand dollars was dedicated to the CAL.

Please read Part 4


Future NASA Missions - Part 2 of 4 Parts

Part 2 of 4 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)

       The Euclid probe is intended to investigate dark energy and dark matter. It is being launched by the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA will provide sixteen state-of-the-art infrared detectors and four spare detectors for one of the two instruments on board the probe. NASA will carry out thorough testing of the detectors before they are sent to the ESA. The mission will calculate the acceleration of the universe in order to improve our understanding of dark matter and dark energy. The probe is designed to measure the redshift of galaxies at different distances from Earth. The calculation involves analyzing the exact relationship between the distance from Earth and the redshift. Five hundred and forty million dollars have been budgeted for this mission that is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2020.

       The Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) is the third such mission for NASA. The OCO-3 will be hosted on the International Space Station. It is designed to measure the distribution of carbon dioxide on the surface of the Earth connected to changing patterns of fossil fuel use and increasing urban populations. The previous Orbiting Carbon Observatory will be dismantled, and the parts will be used to construct the OCO-3. The OCO-3 will have three high resolution grating spectrometers that will make precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The precision and coverage of the OVO-3 instruments will make it possible to analyze the temporal and spatial variation of carbon dioxide during an annual cycle.

      It has three modes. Glint mode points the instrument toward the specular reflection of sunlight from a point onthe Earth’s surface. Nadir mode collects information about patches of ground under the ISS track. When in Target mode, the instrument will lock on to a particular ground location and keep focus on that location as the ISS
passes overhead.

       The planned length of the mission will be three years. One hundred and fifty million dollars has been budgeted for the mission. The launch date has not been decided yet.

       The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission is a collaboration involving NASA, the Canadian
Space Agency and the French space agency. It will be the first space mission to conduct a global survey of the Earth’s surface water. The main purpose of the mission is to gather information about how bodies of water on Earth change with the passage of time. The mission will study rivers, lakes and oceans at least twice every twenty-one days over ninety percent of the surface of the Earth. The purpose of the water survey is to improve ocean circulation models and climate predictions.

        The SWOT mission will utilize a new type of radar referred to as Ka-band Radar Interferometer (KaRIN). This instrument detects microwave radiation in the frequency range of 26.5 to 40 gigahertz. Two radar antennae will detect the elevation of the surface of the Earth along a seventy five mile wide swath below the track of the satellite.

      The mission will carry out its measurements over a three-year period. Seven hundred and fifty-five million dollars have been budgeted for this mission which will launch in the middle of 2020.

Please read Part 3

SWOT satellite:


Future NASA Missions - Part 1 of 3 Parts

       This and two future posts will be dealing with important future missions coming up for NASA.

       The Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) is planned to travel to a near-Earth asteroid and obtain a boulder weighting tons. The boulder will be conveyed to a stable orbit around the Moon where it will be explored by astronauts who will bring samples back to Earth. The ARRM spacecraft will utilize advanced ion engines that are much more efficient than current ion engines. The engines will be powered by UltraFlex-style solar panels. One and a quarter billion dollars have been budgeted for this mission that is scheduled to launch in December of 2021.

       The ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) will remotely measure how much water is lost through stomata which are tiny holes in the surface of a leaf. The mission is intended to answer three questions including how the biosphere on Earth responds to changes in the availability of water, how daily water stress of vegetation influences to global carbon cycle, and whether or not we could decrease agricultural vulnerability if we utilize advanced monitoring and improve the estimation of droughts. The mission will accurately monitor the temperature of terrestrial plants. It will use a multispectral thermal infrared radiometer to measure the surface temperature of the plants. It will be able to calculate the temperature of an individual farmer’s field. Thirty million dollars have been budgeted for this mission which is scheduled to launch in April of 2018.

       The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is part of the James Webb Space Telescope. It will collect images of the emission of galaxies and stars in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The instrument incorporates both a camera and a spectrograph to measure wavelengths from five to twenty-eight micrometers. Silicon arrays doped with arsenic are used for infrared light capture. In order to capture these wavelengths, the instrument must be colder than the rest of the instrumentation so an extra cooling systems will be used to lower the temperature of the device to seven degrees Kelvin. This mission is scheduled to launch in October of 2018.

       The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is dedicated to sending a stationary lander to Mars in order to study the geological nature of Mars. It will investigate the thickness, size, density and overall structure of Mar’s core, mantle and crust. It will also measure the rate at which heat escapes from the interior of Mars. The InSight mission will monitor any seismic activity, use the heat escaping from the Martian interior to estimate the size of the Martian Core and determine whether the core is liquid or solid. It is estimated that these measurements will be up to ten times as accurate as any previous measurements. One hundred and fifty million dollars have been budgeted for this mission which is scheduled to launch in May of 2018.

Please read Part 2

InSight Martian Lander:

Space-Faring Drones Will Extend The Life Of Communication Satellites

       A geosynchronous orbit (GSO) is an Earth orbit where the orbital period matches the Earth’s rotation. There is a special case of a GSO called a geostationary orbit where a circular GSO has no inclination to the Earth’s equatorial plane and is directly over the equator at an altitude of about twenty three thousand miles. A satellite placed in a GSO will remain stationary with respect to a location on Earth.

         Arthur C. Clark, a famous science fiction author, was the first to propose using this orbit for communication satellites. In honor of Clark, this is referred to as the Clark Orbit. The approximately six hundred artificial satellites in this orbit are referred to as the Clark Belt.

       When communication satellites are launched into the Clark Orbit, many of them carry enough maneuvering fuel to adjusts their orbits for about fifteen years. At the end of that time, the satellites are considered to be non-functional because they can no longer precisely control their orbits which is necessary for them to serve their purpose. They become space junk and take up valuable slots in the Clark Orbit which is rapidly filling up.

      Many of these satellites are still perfectly functional as far as their internal electronics are concerned. If some way could be found to restore orbital maneuverability, they could once again become fully functional. A company called Effective Space has been working on a way to accomplish that.

       Effective Space has designed a space-faring drone that weighs about nine hundred pounds. Once launched into geostationary orbit, the drones would seek out satellites that had run out of fuel. Even though the target satellite was not designed for docking, the drones would be able to attach to the interface rings that attached the satellite to its launch vehicle. Once the drone and the satellite are joined, the drone can use its ion thrusters to maneuver the satellite and restore it to full functionality.

      When the onboard electronics of the drone-connected satellite finally fail, the drone would steer it into what is called a “graveyard orbit.” The satellite would then spiral in and burn up as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere. This has the added benefit of freeing up one of the precious Clark Orbit slots. The drone would detach from the satellite and move on to another aging satellite. The lifespan of a typical drone would be about fifteen years. When it was nearing the end of its life, it too would descend and burn up before it ran out of fuel.

       There are other companies that are entering the drone refueling marketplace. Orbital ATK has a contract to use drones to save a couple of communication satellites. Effective Space feels that the small size of its drones will give it an edge against the competition.

        Although fiber optics are replacing communication satellites in densely populated areas on Earth, the Clark Belt will be crowded in the foreseeable future and drone maneuvering systems will be important. 


Researchers Investigating Deterioration Of Visual System In Astronauts

        I have blogged in the past about the fact that space is not a friendly place. It takes a toll on human beings who spend a lot of time there. Calcium leaches out of the bones, muscles lose mass, there is damage to the visual system, and dangerous radiation is common and could lead to cancers. Today, I am going to go into more detail on the damage to astronauts’ eyes.

        Nearly half of long-term astronauts have shown some “significant vision problems upon their return.” Many astronauts find that they cannot focus their eyes correctly after they land and some need glasses for the first time in their lives. A study in 2011 showed changes to the anatomy of astronauts’ eyes.

        Another study was conducted of twenty-seven astronauts who were exposed to micro or zero gravity for an average of one hundred and eight days during space shuttle missions or stays on the International Space Station. The research showed that of astronauts who spend more than thirty days total time in space, nine of them had expansion of the cerebral spina fluid space around the optic nerve. Three had changes in the pituitary gland which produces hormones that have important functions in the human body.

        William Tarver, chief of flight medicine clinic at NASA/Johnson Space Center, says “NASA has placed this problem high on its list of human risks, has initiated a comprehensive program to study its mechanisms and implications, and will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

        Larry Kramer, professor at The University of Texas Medical School and lead researcher on the 2013 study said, “Microgravity-induced intracranial hypertension represents a hypothetical risk factor and a potential limitation to long-duration space travel.”

        Peggy Whitson, who has flown twice on the station and is currently the chief of the astronaut office says, “We've known about vision changes on orbit but in some cases we've actually found that it can be permanent. Some of it is reversible. Some people get reverses and they come back to the same level that they were at pre-flight, and some were not reversible. We don't know enough yet to understand the mechanisms for how that happens.”

        Fifteen astronauts who spent about six months each in orbit were studied recently. The investigation found that the tissue at the back of their eyes around the heads of their optic nerves were warped and swollen for weeks after they landed from their missions.

        Some of the astronauts in the study had previous eye damage that might have been the result of previous missions. Images of the tissues around the gap where the optic nerves penetrate the back of the eye showed those tissues swelling and sinking deeper into the eye after the long-term missions ended.

         Researchers are not certain what is causing the movement and swelling of tissue in the astronauts’ eyes but they have a hypothesis. It is possible the internal pressure of the eye increases during long missions, but the eye adapts to the new pressure. If this is the case, maybe when they return to Earth, the pressure might return to normal so quickly that the tissue in the eye is irritated and deformed.

        NASA does not have a solution to this problem. And they may not have the ability to develop such a solution. However, it is an important issue that must be solved if we are going to launch deep-space manned missions.


The Space Debris Sensor System Will Be Attached To The International Space Station

       I have blogged before about all the debris orbiting the Earth left over from space launches. It is estimated that there are more than one hundred million pieces of debris that are less than 1 centimeter in size. They are too small to track with radar, but some are still big enough to cause serious damage to a space craft because they are traveling so fast.

       The International Space Station currently has special shields to handle orbital debris that is smaller than 1 ½ centimeters. Pieces that are larger than that can be tracked by ground-based radar. If they pose a sufficient hazard to the ISS, there are thruster attached to the ISS that can be used to move it out of the way of the debris.

       A new Space Debris Sensor (SDS) has been developed. It will be used to monitor small space debris around the ISS. The system will be tested for two or three years. It will be recording debris between .05 millimeters and .5 millimeters. Any debris that is more than .3 millimeters will be tracked from the ground as part of the study.

        The SDS will be delivered to the ISS as part of a SpaceX supply mission by December 12, 2018. It will be mounted on the Columbus module of the ISS and provide nearly real-time tracking and recording of small space debris.

       John Hamilton, one of the principle researchers on the SDS project said, “Debris this small has the potential to damage exposed thermal protection systems, spacesuits, windows and unshielded sensitive equipment. On the space station, it can create sharp edges on handholds along the path of spacewalkers, which can also cause damage the suits.”

      The SDS has three layers. It is able to record the size, speed, direction and density of the small objects in the debris cloud. The debris penetrates the first two layers which are identical. Each contains acoustic sensors and resistive lines which are .075 millimeters wide. They provide information on the time, location and speed of the particles. The final layer is made of Lexan which stops the particles and records their density. None of the captured particles will be recovered but the SDS does provide important information.

        Hamilton said, “The backstop has sensors to measure how hard it is hit to estimate the kinetic energy of the impacting object. By combining this with velocity and size measurements from the first two layers, we hope to calculate the density of the object.”

        The information gathered by the SDS system should allow the researchers to create a detailed map of the entire orbital debris cloud at that altitude. They will be able to plan for the placement of future sensors beyond the ISS and low Earth orbit where there is greater risk of damage from orbital debris.

       Hamilton said, “The orbital debris environment is constantly changing and needs to be continually monitored. While the upper atmosphere causes debris in low orbits to decay and either burn up of fall to Earth, every new launch and new event in space will add to the cloud of debris.

Space Debris Sensor diagram: