Russians Are Planning On Adding A Luxury Hotel Module To The International Space Station

       I have often blogged about the International Space Station, a cooperative project of space faring nations in orbit around the earth. A lot of experiments are carried out by the international crew of the ISS. The U.S. and Russia are two of the major players in the project. Now Russia has announced its intention to send up a new module to be connected to the ISS to serve as a resort destination to the ultra-wealthy who want to spend a few days in orbit.

       Of all the suggestions for businesses that might play a part in the development of a robust space industry, I have always thought that the idea of space tourism is just not very realistic. Consider the level of tourism for Antarctica, not exactly a popular destination. Some of the companies working on launch vehicles have said that they do intend to offer flights to tourists but they will be expensive, uncomfortable and short. On the other hand, for those with the money, there might be a few who would be willing to pay for a stay on the ISS.

       The Russians say that they will add luxury accommodations to the ISS with their new module. The features of the propose addition to the ISS include private cabins with big windows, personal hygiene facilities, exercise equipment and Wi-Fi. Space tourists will have the opportunity to take space walks with trained astronauts, if they wish. The first package they will offer to tourists will be a one to two week stay at the ISS for forty million dollars. Adding a space walk and extending the stay to a month will cost an additional twenty million.

         The detailed plan was released by Rosatom this month. The new luxury module will weight twenty tons and be about fifty feet long. It will contain over three thousand cubic feet of pressurized space. There will be four personal cabins with about seven cubic feet each. There will also be two “hygiene and medical stations” of seven cubic feet each. Each personal cabin will have a window of nine inches in diameter with a sixteen inch diameter window in the lounge area of the module. Russia’s prime space station contractor, RKK Energia, is working on an arrangement to pay for the construction of the module with a mixture of private and state investors. In order to turn a profit, the module will be customized for paying customers.

       The estimated cost of the new module will be between two hundred and eighty million and four hundred and fifty million. RKK Energia plans to fly two tourists and one professional astronaut on each of four Soyuz flights each year. RKK Energia hopes to be able to recover their costs and start turning a profit in about seven years. To get the process going, RKK Energia plans to offer twelve tourists a trip to the ISS for about four million each. This will provide some initial seed money for work on the module. During the two years leading up to the flight, each tourist will pay about twelve million dollars with a final eleven million dollar payment at the time of the flight.  

       The Russians have been considering space tourism for years. However, with the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, the only way to get to the ISS has been on the Russian Soyuz shuttles. All the seats available for trips to the ISS have been booked by other nations for their astronauts. Fortunately, private space companies such as SpaceX under contract to NASA are working on space taxis to take people to the ISS. This will free up the Soyuz shuttles to bring paying tourists to the ISS.

        As I said above, I don’t believe that space tourism will be much of a market for decades at best. On the other hand, I will the Russian the best of luck on their plans.

NEMS ISS module design which will be used for the hotel module:

 

Suspended Animation For Space Travel

      Many fairytales and legends feature a person being put into a long sleep, in some cases decades. With the advent of the scientific age, the idea of being able to put someone into a deep sleep in order for them to endure long space flights became popular. However, the complexity of human biological processes were not understood well enough to safely put someone to sleep for years and then bring them back to wakefulness with their health intact. A new company believes that they can develop suspended animation that really works.

        SpacewWorks is a new company in the space industry. It’s website states, “SpaceWorks delivers advanced products and services to the space community. From hypersonic flight test systems and small spacecraft to aerospace software development and engineering services, SpaceWorks is focused on future flight and space exploration technologies.”

         Spaceworks is proposing the use of a suspended animation system they call “therapeutic hypothermia.” In this procedure, the body is cooled to a little below normal body temperature which is ninety-eight point six degrees. This process is already used in medicine to give doctors more time to treat serious brain injuries or cardiac arrest. The body of the patient is lowered to between ninety degrees and ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. So far, patients are only kept at the lower temperature for two to four days. However, there have been tests where a subject was kept at the lower temperature for up to two weeks. Spaceworks thinks that they can extend this lowered temperature state for months. They also believe that they can develop the technology needed to automate the process and apply it to deep space missions.

       In depictions in novels and movies, suspended animation is carried out in individual pods. The system envisioned by Spaceworks would feature an open space where astronauts could sleep in shifts. There would be some robotic arms and monitoring systems to take care of the sleepers. There would be small transnasal tubes in their noses to assist in cooling and heating. This system would be lighter than other designs. Sleeping in shifts insures that there will always be someone awake to deal with maintenance and emergencies.

       One big problem with suspended animation is the concern about muscular deterioration. SpaceWorks is considering a system which utilizes electrical stimulation of the muscles while the subject is asleep. There has also been work done on animal biochemistry to discover how animals can endure long periods of hibernation without muscular atrophy.

        Being able to have some of the crew hibernating at any time would mean that the ship would have to carry less fuel, food, water and air than would otherwise be required. There is also the issue of dealing with the psychological impacts of depression, claustrophobia, or anxiety caused by boredom and close quarters of a long deep space. Allowing crew to sleep through a lot of the  flight would help solve these problems.        Spaceworks hopes to be able to begin animal testing next year.

 

 

 

       

Russian Cosmonaut Claims That He Found Bacteria On The Surface Of The International Space Station

      Many science fiction movies begin with the return of a probe from space which brings some sort of alien life to Earth from space to wreak havoc on our ecosystem. For a long time it was though that the conditions in space were too harsh for the survival of any sort of living organism. However, we have found a living creature called a tardigrade which is so hearty that it can survive vacuum and radiation.  

        When we send probes to Mars, we sterilize the probes so we don’t introduce living organisms from Earth into the Martian environment. And we are careful when bringing samples back from celestial bodies that we don’t introduce alien life into the Earth’s environment. There are theories that life may have originated elsewhere and spread though space to land on Earth. A recent finding by a Russian Cosmonaut named Anton Shkaplerov raises the odds that this could have happened.

       Yeas ago, Russian Cosmonauts swabbed the external surface of the International Space Station during space walks and stored the swabs. Now examination of those swabs indicates that there were bacteria on the external surface of the ISS that were not on the modules when they were first sent into orbit.

       Shkaplerov tooks some of the original swabs and his announcement of his findings of bacteria surprised NASA officials at the time because they said that they did not receive any notice from the Russians about the bacteria. Russian scientists examined the space-walk bacterial samples and said that it was apparently sea plankton that was on the outside of the station.

        NASA has had nothing substantial to say about the Russian announcement. They refer reporters to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Roscosmos has been distributing a couple of articles to people asking for information on the discoveries. One article talks about the finding of the plankton on the ISS. The other article talks about the possibility that bacteria from asteroids and comets might collect on the outside of the ISS.

       While the existence of the tardigrade and the finding of organic molecules in space bolster the idea of bacterial life existing in space, there is a more logical and less radical explanation. The Earth’s atmosphere extends out to about six thousand miles but is very, very tenuous at that altitude. The mesosphere layer of the atmosphere extends out to about four hundred miles. The ISS orbits around two hundred and fifty miles above the Earth. It is at least theoretically possible there may be undiscovered bacteria in the mesosphere which were collected by the ISS.

       There are recent reports that suggest that high velocity flows of space dust could possibly incorporate bacteria from the Earth’s atmosphere and carry it through space to other worlds. And, of course, the reverse possibility exists that life on Earth may have been carried here from other worlds by such flows of space dust.

      While we are looking for life on the surface of other worlds such as Mars, it may be floating along with other space dust on the solar winds generated by the sun.

International Space Station:

NASA Working On Venus Missions At Glenn Research Center - Part 2 of 2 parts

Part 2 of 2 parts (Please read Part 1 first)

       NASA maintains the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio to “design and develop innovative technology to advance NASA’s missions in aeronautics and space exploration.” At the Center, there is a fourteen-ton sealed stainless steel tank known as the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER) which contains a simulation of the conditions of the surface of Venus.

      The original purpose of the chamber was to test efficient nuclear-fueled Stirling generators to refrigerate electronics for Venus missions. However, the project was canceled in 2013. A dedicated researcher managed to find funding to continue developing the GEER.

       The current version of the chamber can mix eight different gases to simulate the Venusian atmosphere. It can also inject water and other liquids into the chamber to run different tests. It has been used to simulate the effects of the Venusian atmosphere on the types of rocks that are found on the Venusian surface.

       NASA is also pioneering a new generation of electronic chips at the GLC that may be able to withstand the conditions on the surface of Venus without being protected by massive shielding. These chips would be able to land on Venus in simple landers and monitor wind, temperature, chemistry, pressure, and seismic waves. Unlike the bulky primitive Soviet landers, these landers would be able to continue to function for months as opposed to hours.

      Early this decade, the scientists at the GRC began work on special heat-resistant electronics. They are working with a new type of semiconductor that was originally intended to be able to be placed inside of jet engines. They were contacted by Russian scientists who were working on new pressure vessel probes for exploring Venus. This interaction resulted in igniting interest in the GLC researchers in the exploration of Venus.

       The new electronics are based on silicon carbide which is able to function effectively at much higher temperatures than pure silicon. One of the breakthroughs that made the new generation of chips possible was the development of techniques by an electronics company named Cree to create the large flawless silicon carbide crystals that were necessary to build the new chips. One of the GLC breakthroughs was the ability to created layered chips which led to increasing the complexity of possible circuits.

       The new chips are very expensive, and the prototype circuits are very simple with few chips when compared to modern computers. But they can function in conditions where modern computers would melt. Recently, a simple twenty-four transistor circuit of the new chips ran successfully for twenty-four days inside the GEER.

      Another branch of NASA has been working on the development of a mechanical clock-work lander without any electronics. When they found out about work being done at GLC, they contacted the center to explore the possibility of supplementing the new electronics with their mechanical approach.

      If the GLC can perfect the new electronics that they are working on, new missions to Venus may be able to answer many of these questions more quickly and accurately than has been assumed possible. If the three Venus projects submitted for the New Frontiers Mission fail to be funded, the GLC approach to high-temperature electronic chips may be the best bet for future Venus missions.

NASA Working On Venus Missions At Glenn Research Center - Part 1 of 2 parts

Part 1 of 2 parts.

       Venus is the second planet from the sun in our solar system. Its year is about two hundred and twenty-four days. Venus is similar to the Earth in terms of size, mass and bulk composition. In other ways, it is very different than the Earth. It has the densest atmosphere of the four Earth-like planets; Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Ninety six percent of the atmosphere is carbon dioxide. The pressure of the atmosphere at the surface is ninety-two times as dense as the atmosphere at the surface of the Earth. Venus is also the hottest planet in the solar system with a surface temperature of about eight hundred and sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of Venus is obscured by clouds of sulfuric acid. It may have had oceans of water in the past but they would have evaporated in the run-away greenhouse environment. The surface is a dry desert with some slab-like rock.

       The last NASA mission to Venus was in 1989. There have been European, Japanese and Soviet missions to Venus. Most of these missions were just orbital but in the 1980s, the Soviet Union sent a series of landers covered in heavy armor to resist the harsh environment. The last such lander was sent in 1985 and only endured for a few hours on the surface before being destroyed by the pressure and temperature.

       For many years, it was thought that the surface of Venus was static for long periods of time, occasionally punctuated by huge volcanic eruptions that essentially repaved large areas of the surface. However, recent probes with new equipment that could better penetrate the cloudy atmosphere to yield new details about the surface suggests that the surface is much more active on an ongoing basis than the earlier models.

        NASA has a special program for exploring speculative technologies for use in space exploration called the New Frontiers program. This year there are three entries for mission to Venus. They face intense competition for other projects like going back to Saturn to look for life on the moons Enceladus and Titan.

       The first two Venus missions would drop a pressure-vessel to the surface of Venus. Each would monitor the chemistry of the atmosphere on the way down. Once on the surface, each would spend its few hours of life using a laser or a mechanical drill to take samples of rocks on the surface. One of the big questions they are seeking to answer is whether or not Venus may have started with the same amount of water that Earth did.

       The third proposed project for the New Frontiers Missions would just have a probe that dived in and out of the atmosphere for the analysis of atmospheric chemistry. The high-resolution radar on the probe would be able to penetrate the atmosphere far better than the old probes to return highly detailed images of the surface. It is hoped that these detailed pictures might be able to answer questions about the processes that shaped and are shaping the surface of Venus.

       Scientists believe that missions to Venus could return valuable information about the development of the current environment on Earth and how Venus evolved into its hellish environment. Venus is the only other planet in the solar system that is similar enough to the Earth to answer some of these questions.

Please read Part 2

Venus, Earth size comparison:

Space 187 - NASA Working On A System To Return Crew Capsule To Earth If Launch Vehicle Blows Up or Fails

       One danger of a manned space launch is that there could be a major problem during launch. If this happens, there should be a way for the crew capsule to be jettisoned so that it can return safely to Earth. We have lost astronauts during launch before. There have been a variety of safety systems proposed. Now NASA reveals a launch abort system for the launch of the Orion manned spacecraft.

        NASA is currently working on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) which will be delivered to space on top of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS). The massive launch vehicle can develop almost ninety million pounds of thrust. If it developed problems during launch, the explosion would be huge. In order to protect the crew from death in such an eventuality, NASA has developed the Launch Abort System (LAS). NASA has scheduled a full stress test of the LAS for April 2019 to speed the development process and to validate computer models.

        If there is an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent, the LAS will use a solid-fuel rocket referred to as the abort motor (AM) to separate the Orion crew module from the launch vehicle. The AM will generate a brief but powerful burst of thrust in order to move the capsule and the SLS apart as quickly as possible. Following separation, the capsule will be returned to Earth supported by the deployment of a set of parachutes. Even if the LAS works as designed, it will be an extremely stressful ride for the crew.

         For the full stress test, NASA will use a fully functional LAS with an uncrewed Orion test vehicle. The capsule and the LAS will be sent into space aboard an Orbital booster rocket built by ATK. The rocket will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. When the launch vehicle reaches an altitude of thirty-two thousand feet and a velocity of over a thousand miles an hour, the LAS reverse-flow abort motor will trigger, igniting and shoving the Orion test capsule away from the rocket. For this initial test, parachutes will not be used because the primary reason for the test is to check the separation system.

       The LAS has two parts. First, there is a fairing assembly that shields the crew capsule from the wind, heat, and sound of the launch. Second, there is what is called a launch abort tower which holds the crew capsule away from the SLS and contains three motors.

        The first scheduled launch of the LAS on the SLS won’t happen until December of 2019 at the earliest and could easily be delayed until July of 2020. NASA is currently about a year behind schedule for the development of the LAS and unforeseen events could result in even greater schedule delays. NASA does say that it is still on schedule for the first launch of a crewed flight with the full LAS system in place in 2023. 

Michigan Technical University Working On FerroFluid Microthrusters

       An increasingly large share of the satellite market is being taken up by what are referred to as “small satellites.” These are defined as weighing less than one thousand one hundred pounds. It is estimated that between 2015 and 2019, over five hundred small satellites will have been launched into low Earth orbit. The value of this fleet of satellites will be about seven and a half billion dollars.

      One major problem that is being worked on with respect to small satellites is the problem of maneuvering them while they are in orbit. The propulsion systems for such maneuvering are referred to as microthrusters. Many of these small satellites are launched in a batch and then released into different orbits. The problem posed by this process is the fact that small satellites being launched in a batch are not allowed to carry any flammable materials including rocket fuel. A new type of microthrusters is being developed at the Ion Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Michigan Technical University (MTU).

       The MTU researchers are working with ferrofluids. A ferrofluid is a liquid that becomes strongly magnetized in a magnetic field. Then the application of a strong electrical field can cause ions to spray off of peaks in the ferrofluid which could propel a small satellite. Their work was inspired by earlier research at the University of Sydney in Australia.

         Professor Lyon B. King, the Ron & Elaine Starr Professor in Space Systems at MTU, has been researching the physics of ferrofluids for many years, has been supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). He  (says, “We’re working with a unique material called an ionic liquid ferrofluid. When we put a magnet underneath a small pool of the ferrofluid, it turns into a beautiful hedgehog structure of aligned peaks. When we apply a strong electric field to that array of peaks, each one emits an individual micro-jet of ions.”

        King’s team at MTU undertook a comprehensive experimental and computational study program on the dynamic properties of ferrofluid. They developed a computer model of the interaction between magnetic fields, electrical fields and surface tensions in ferrofluid. One researcher said, “We wanted to learn what led up to emission instability in one single peak of the ferrofluid microthrusters. We learned that the magnetic field has a large effect in preconditioning the fluid electric stress.”

       The MTU team developed a model for an electrospray ionic liquid ferrofluid thruster. Previous electrospray thrusters utilized microscopic needles through which passed tiny jets of fluid. The new design for ferrofluid thrusters does away with the need for the microneedles which are fragile and expensive to manufacture. The ferrofluid microthrusters create their own ion ejecting peaks when they are hit with a powerful magnetic field.

        The AFOSR were impressed with the model developed by the MTU researchers and have provided another grant for them to work on developing ferrofluid microthrusters based on that model. Professor King said, “Often in the lab we’ll have one peak working and 99 others loafing. Brandon’s model will be a vital tool for the team going forward. If we are successful, our thruster will enable small inexpensive satellites with their own propulsion to be mass produced. That could improve remote sensing for better climate modeling, or provide better internet connectivity, which three billion people in the world still do not have.”

       There is a great deal of work that remains to be done and it may take years to develop a working prototype for a ferrofluid microthruster. If and when they are developed, ferrofluid microthrusters will be put to work propelling the growing fleet of small satellites, cubesats and nanosats in low Earth orbit.

Ferrofluid forming peaks under the influence of magnetic fields: 

Caltech Is Working On Space-Based Solar Power System

       The human race has an insatiable hunger for energy. Down through the ages humanity has found new sources for energy and exploited them ruthlessly. Our use of fossil fuels to power our civilization has resulted in changes to the climate that may render large areas of the Earth uninhabitable. Hopefully we will ramp up the use of non-polluting renewable energy sources in time to prevent the collapse of our society. One of the best renewable sources is solar power. However, solar power can be intermittent in many locations and, of course, is only available in the daytime. With the development of a robust private space industry, there are hopes that we can place solar power collectors in orbit where the sun shines all the time.

       The idea of space-based solar power can be traced to the short story “Reason” by Isaac Asimov published in 1941. A detailed description of the idea was provided in 1968 with the first patent for such a system being granted in 1973 to Peter Glaser. A large array in space would collect solar energy which would be converted to microwaves and transmitted through a large antenna to a smaller antenna on the ground.

        The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC) formed the Space-Based Solar Power Initiative (SSPI) in 2015. Caltech was supplied with a budget of seventeen and a half million dollars for a three year project to “develop the scientific and technological innovations necessary to enable a space-based solar power system—consisting of ultralight, high-efficiency photovoltaics, a phased-array system to produce and distribute power dynamically, and ultralight deployable space structures—that ultimately will be capable of generating electric power at a cost comparable to that from fossil-fuel power plants.” One of the SSPI members said “What we’re proposing, somewhat audaciously, is to develop the technology that would enable one to build the largest-ever-built space structure.”

       The SSPI is using a modular approach to help lower costs and provide redundancy. The basic unit of the system is a four inch square, one inch thick “multifunctional tile” which is a light photovoltaic cell that weights three one hundredths of an ounce. The project calls for making a panel with four hundred tiles and placing nine hundred of the panels into each satellite. Each set of panels can be folded into a small space for launch and then unfolded in orbit to about two thirds the size of a football field.

       The SSPI plan calls for putting twenty five hundred of these satellites into a close formation in orbit. Altogether, this array of panels would be about three and a half square miles in size. Each tile is able to convert solar energy into microwaves that can be beamed back to Earth.

       One benefit of the modular approach with the small tiles is that inevitable damage to any orbital structure from micro meteorites or orbital debris would only knock out a few individual tiles leaving the rest of the array intact to continue supplying power.

       Another benefit of space-based solar power is the fact that unlike terrestrial power stations, space-based solar power does not require sophisticated infrastructure at the site of use. This makes it ideal to supply power to remote and impoverished areas. Only a relatively simple and cheap ground station has to be built with the antenna to receive the orbital power.

Blue Origin Hot-Tests New BE-4 Engine

       When I was a kid, the portrayal of space ships showed them landing on their tails. Up until recently, every launch just threw away the engines and boosters. This made the cost of launching a package into orbit very expense. Recently SpaceX has developed the capability to land the launch vehicle back on its tail so it can be reused. This will allow SpaceX to offer launch services that are much cheaper than competitors. One competitor is working hard on their own reuse capability. I have blogged before about Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, attempt to return the engines in the launch vehicle to Earth for reuse. There is new news on Blue Origin efforts.

       Blue Origin has been developing the BE-4 liquid natural gas engine for years. This new engine will be used for the Blue Origin New Glenn orbital rocket. There has been great interest in this engine in the space industry. It features new innovations in technology and it is intended to be fully reusable.

       The BE-4 has just passed an important milestone called a hot-fire test. Last Wednesday at the Blue Origin’s West Texas test facility, a BE-4 engine was fired at fifty percent power for three seconds. The testing of the BE-4 engine sends a signal to the space industry that Blue Origin intends to compete for major launch contracts against other companies such as SpaceX.

       The new Blue Origin BE-4 engine develops five hundred fifty pounds of thrust at sea level. This is the most powerful U.S. rocket engine developed since Rocketdyne created the RS-68 engine over twenty years ago. The RS-38 engine was a workhorse for the U.S. space program but it is too expensive for today’s space missions. The U.S. military has also been using the Atlas V powered by Russian engines to launch some missions which is also too expensive.

        The United Launch Alliance which has been flying the Delta IV fleet of launch vehicles powered by RS-38 engines has decided to outsource the construction of mew rocket engines. The ULA is working on a new rocket dubbed the Vulcan to replace both the Delta IV and the Atlas V rockets. The ULA prefers the BE-4 engine but is also considering the AR1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne as a backup choice.

        Aerojet Rocketdyne has a long history of engine development. Lobbyists for Aerojet Rocketdyne are busy on Capitol Hill trying to get Congress to force the ULA to use their AR1 engine instead of the BE-4 based on the argument that Blue Origin is a new company that does not have the experience and expertise to build such a complex new rocket engine. The successful hot-test just conducted by Blue Origin is evidence that Aerojet Rocketdyne may be wrong about the ability of Blue Origin to perfect the BE-4 engine. In addition, this test shows that Blue Origin is ahead of Aerojet in the development of a powerful new rocket engine.

      The BE-4 engine is being developed for the New Glenn rocket. This big orbital rocket may be tested as early as 2020. The design of the New Glenn calls for seven rocket engines to power the two hundred and seventy foot tall vehicle. This rocket will have the ability to send forty five tons of payload into lower Earth orbit. It will also be able to launch thirteen tons to geosynchronous orbit. Each BE-4 engine will be able to be recovered and reused up to one hundred times.

BE-4 engine:

The Chinese Tiangong-1 Space Station Will Fall To Earth In The Next Few Months

         The Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace 1 in Chinese) was the first space station launched by China. It was carried into orbit in September of 2011 aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket. It served as a manned laboratory and “experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities.” It is thirty five feet long and eleven feet in diameter. It weighs about eighteen thousand eight hundred pounds. Its orbit is about two hundred miles above the Earth.

       The Tiangong-1 is a pressurized habitat with a volume of about five hundred and thirty cubic feet. It is divided into two sections. The first section is a resource module with solar panels and the propulsion system. The second and larger section is the habitable experimental module. The habitable module contains two sleep “stations” and exercise gear. High resolution cameras allowed the ground station to monitor activities in the module. There are no toilets or cooking facilities in the Tiangong-1 itself. These are supplied by a docked Shenzhou spacecraft. When three people are manning the station, two sleep in the habitable module and the third sleeps in the Shenzhou spacecraft. The first manned mission to the Tiangong-1 was carried out in March of 2012, During this mission, both automated and manual docking procedures were successfully tested.  

         The planned operational lifetime of the Tiangong-1 was two years and originally it was to be deorbited in 2013. During its first two years in orbit, it was visited by a series of Shenzhou spacecraft, both unmanned and manned. In 2013, its operational lifetime was extended by two years. In March of 2017, the Chinese Space Engineering Office released a statement saying that the Tiangong-1 had “officially ended its service.” Months later, amateurs satellite trackers observing the Tiangong-1 concluded that the Chinese had lost control of the space station. In September, the Chinese announced that they had lost control of the Tiangong-1.

         The Tiangong-1orbit is rapidly decaying and it is dipping in and out of the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is estimated that the space station will disintegrate and fall to Earth sometime within the next few months. Fragments weighing over two hundred pounds may reach the ground. The Chinese will carefully monitor the descent of the space station and inform the United Nations when the Tiangong-1 makes its final descent. Predicting exactly where it will come down is impossible even days before it lands. Final location information will only be available a few hours before it falls.

       Many other large satellites have fallen to Earth and no one has ever been injured. The NASA seventy seven ton Skylab space station crashed to Earth in Australia in 1979. Some large pieces of debris fell outside of Perth in Western Australia.  In 1991, the Soviet twenty ton Salyut 7 space station fell from orbit. It was still docked with the Cosmos 1686, another twenty ton craft. The two spacecraft disintegrated above Argentina. Debris from the breakup rained down above the town of Capitan Bermudez.

       The Tiangong-2 is the successor to the Tiangong-1. It was launched in September of 2016. This space station is intended to be a testbed for technologies that will be utilized by China to launch a third space station which will be multi-modular and much larger.

Artist’s concept of Tiangong-1:

Russian Soyuz And Proton Rockes Are Reaching The End Of Their Competitiveness In The Commercial Launch Market

       Sixty years ago on October 4th, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, and triggered the Space Race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The Sputnik satellite was sent into orbit by a Soyuz rocket. Since that historical launch, the Soyuz family of rockets was the workhorse for the Soviet space program, and, since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, has been the workhorse for the Russian space program. Soyuz rockets are the only launch vehicles that are currently sending payload to the International Space Station. The Russian also still use the heavy-lift Proton rocket developed by the Soviets in the 1960s to launch commercial satellites into high-Earth orbit.

       These two families of Soviet/Russian launch vehicles have an excellent reputation from decades of use. However, lately, their legendary reliability has suffered. A series of recent failures raises the question of whether or not the plant in Voronezh that produces rocket engines for the Soyuz and Proton rockets is able to maintain the high level of quality control that is required for these engines to function properly.

        Problems with Soyuz and Proton engines in 2016 were found to be the result of manufacturing flaws at the Voronezh factory. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, had to send over seventy rocket engines back to the factory to have faulty parts replaced. One result was a one year hiatus of Proton launches. This lack of launch capability has injured Russian status in the commercial satellite launch market. Last year was the first time that the U.S. and China both carried out more launches than Russia.

       Many clients have chosen to have their satellites launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX has managed to lower their launch costs by making their boosters reusable. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy-lifter will be tested this fall. It will be able to lift three times the load of any existing launch vehicle at one half the price.

       While Russia is obviously aware of the fact that it is becoming uncompetitive in the commercial launch business, it is not clear what they intend to do about it. There have been reports that they may manufacture a lower-powered Proton engine in order to reduce costs.

      The Khrunichev company which manufactures the Soyuz and Proton engines, is having serious difficulties. There have been criminal investigations of alleged mismanagement. A decision was made to sharply reduce its assets. A lot of the expensive real estate in western Moscow that belongs to the company is being slated for development.

      Russia has been working on the Angara rocket which will be a replacement for both the Soyuz and the Proton. There have been repeated delays in the Angara project and questions have been raised about whether it will ever be finished. Without a long track record of successful launches and with a greater construction cost than other rockets in the commercial launch market, its prospects are dim.

      The Russians will also be losing their monopoly for launches to the ISS soon. The SpaceX Dragon v2 and the Boeing Starliner crew capsules will be flying test missions to the ISS next year. The Russians have been working on the Federation which is a new crew capsule to replace the Soyuz capsule. A test flight has been tentatively scheduled for 2023 but there are few details available. Russia has also talked about sending manned missions to the Moon in the 2020s but little is known about those plans.

Soyuz rocket engines:

U.S. And Russia Sign Letter Of Intent To Construct A Space Station To Orbit The Moon.

       The releationship between U.S. and Russia has been deteriorating as investigations into Russian meddling in our last presidential election have proceeded. However, there is one area where cooperation has continued and is even expanding. That is in the exploration of space. The U.S. and Russia have collaborated on the constrution, maintenance and operation of the International Space Station (ISS). Now a new collaboration in space has just been proposed at the International Astronautical Congress that was held in Australia this week.

      NASA in the U.S. and Roscosmos in Russia just signed a statement of intent to work together to construct a new space station that will orbit the Moon. Few details of the agreement are available but it is known that it is part of NASA’s plan to eventually send manned missions to Mars. The project is being referred to a deep space gateway and it was announced earlier in the year by NASA. The gateway would function as a “home” base in Lunar orbit. It would contain residential quarters and research facilities. Spacecraft would be able to dock with the gateway the same way they do with the ISS. Even though NASA is developing the heavy-class Space Launch System rocket, the gateway would have to be launched in sections and assembled in orbit because it would be too big for a single launch.

       The focus of NASA space missions is subject to the whims of the politicians in Washington, D.C. During the Bush administration, NASA focused on the Moon. Then, when the Obama administration took over, the focus was shifted to Mars missions. With the arrival of the Trump administration, the focus shifted back to the Moon. In any case, whether further explorations of the Moon, manned missions to Mars or asteroid mining projects are the main focus of NASA, a gateway station orbiting the Moon would be useful to reseach and support such missions.

      In a press release, NASA’s acting administrator said, "Statements such as this one signed with Roscosmos show the gateway concept as an enabler to the kind of exploration architecture that is affordable and sustainable." 

       NASA is cautious about committing to specific timelines for future projects but the original plan for the deep space gateway called for a one-year crewed mission at the operational station by 2030. In order to meet that goal, NASA and Roscosmos are working with private space companies on the development of new technologies that will be necessary.

       The International Space Station also involves the space agencies of Europe, Japan and Canada. The letter of intent that was just signed between the U.S. and Russia does not mention these other space faring countries or what possible involvement they may have in the gateway project. At the announcement of the agreement during the conference, a representative of Roscosmos said that the project could be open to the participation of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. All of these countries have an existing agreement with Russia with respect to space exploration and exploitation.

Artist’s concept of the construction of the deep space gateway:

International Group Preparing Test Mission To Attempt To Deflect An Asteroid

       There are many asteroids that cross the orbit of the Earth. Occasionally, one passes near the Earth. If a large asteroid hits the Earth, the consequences could be catastrophic. There have been a lot of discussions and debates about what could be done if astronomers detect an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. Unlike such natural disasters as volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquake, an asteroid strike is something that the human race might be able to do something about. However, if we are to have any chance, we must make preparations now and test various approaches to deflecting an asteroid.      

       An international group European Space Agency (ESA), the German Aerospace Center(DLR), Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur (OCA), NASA, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) has been working on a dry-run to rendezvous with an incoming asteroid and deflect its course. The overall project is called Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment. The U.S. part of the project called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The plan is to send a spacecraft to a distant asteroid named Didymos. It would smash into a tiny moon called Didymoon that orbits the asteroid and alter its trajectory if successful. The U.S. part has reached phase B which means that the plan has been approved but now it must be funded.

       The European part of the project is called the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM). It consists of sending a small spacecraft to the rendezvous site in order to survey the impact and the reaction of the tiny moon. The ministers in charge of funding AIM rejected a three hundred million dollar request last December calling their part of the mission into question.  

       Didymoon, the target of the test mission, is big enough to cause serious damage if it hit the Earth. It is about five hundred feet wide. It would hit with an impact force equal to four hundred megatons of TNT. This is about a hundred times the force of the average nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal.

       Recently, the European scientists working on AIM have suggested altering the design of AIM to reduce the cost of the mission. They suggest reducing the size of and simplifying the complexity of the observational spacecraft that they will send to the watch the impact. This would cost about one hundred and fifty million dollars or about half of the cost of the recent funding request. There could also be a delay if the project design is altered. It would be best if both parts of the project happened at the same time but that is not absolutely necessary. One of the goals of the observation mission is to measure the mass of Didymoon. This could be done well after DART which is scheduled for 2022.

      The head of European Space Agency (ESA) told a reporter that they will put forward a new proposal at the next ministerial meeting in 2019. He also said "It is important for humanity, as a species we have the means today to deflect an asteroid. We know it will happen, one day sooner or later. It's not a question of if, but when. We have never tested asteroid deflection and there is no way we can test in (the) laboratory. We need to know if our models are correct, (whether) our simulations work as expected."

Experiments With Bacteria On The International Space Station Show How They Become Antibiotic Resistance

      I have mentioned before that bacteria in spacecraft can develop into more virulent strains with antibiotic resistance. This adds to the biological problems that humans face when living in space beyond the atmosphere and gravity of the Earth. A recent experiment on the International Space Station provided additional detail on how these changes occur. The report was published in Frontiers of Microbiology.

       E coli bacteria were the subject of an experiment in space which subjected the bacteria to different concentrations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate which is known to kill it on Earth. The bacteria in space increased its cell number by thirteen times and reduced its cell column size by seventy three percent.

       The report reveals how bacteria act in space when they are not subject to gravity related effects such as buoyancy and sedimentation. The bacteria changes shape in order to survive in the new environment. This limits the way that bacteria can ingest nutrients or drugs to the process of natural diffusion. Because the surface area of the bacterial cells decreases when in space, the rate at which molecules of a drug around the cell can interact with the cell decreases. The cell membrane becomes thicker in space which also serves to protect the bacteria from the antibiotic. Bacterial cells also form clumps in space which might be a defensive process that would sacrifice cells on the surface of the cell clump in order to protect cells inside the clump.

       During the experiment, some of the E coli cells were seen creating membrane vesicles. These are small capsules that form on the outside of bacterial cell walls. They serve as messengers that allow the E coli cells to communicate with each other. When a clump of E coli cells reaches a critical mass, they can synchronize to start infecting a host.

       The lead author of the study, Luis Zea, said "We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them. What's new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments. Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance mechanisms being activated in the space flight samples. This experiment and others like it give us the opportunity to better understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics here on Earth."

        Our understanding of biological processes in space has increased our understanding of just how hostile that environment is. Not only are there negative effects on human bones, muscles, eyes and hearts but these experiments with E coli show that other hostile organisms become even more dangerous in space. It will be necessary to conduct more experiments in order to understand just exactly how to treat astronauts infected with these more dangerous bacteria. This will be especially important in long term missions such as manned missions to the planet Mars and other remote astronomical bodies.

E coli bacteria: 

U.S. Air Force Considering Placing Tungsten Rods In Orbit As A Kinetic Projectile Weapon

       The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1976 by one hundred and seven countries. Among its provisions is a ban on putting any nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in Earth orbit. Of course there is the problem of being able to actually know exactly what is being launched into orbit by different countries and private firms. For all we know, there could be many nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in Earth orbit right now ready to be used at a moment’s notice. But setting aside that issue, is there any way that destruction could be rained down on targets on Earth from orbit that do not involve the listed types of weapons? As a matter of fact, such an option does exist.

       During the Vietnam war, the U.S. used a weapon called a “Lazy Dog.” These were two inch long steel pieces which had fins. Hundreds of these were dropped on Vietnam by planes. The principle of these steel projectiles is referred to as “kinetic bombardment.” These projectiles could be dropped from as low as three thousand feet and reach speeds of up to five hundred miles an hour. They hit with such force that they could punch through nine inches of concrete. These Lazy Dog projectiles gave rise to Project Thor.

             The U.S. Air Force has a design for a very simple device that could be used as a weapon from orbit. A simple tungsten rod could hit a target on Earth with the destructive power of a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Project Thor was based on using a tungsten rod twenty feet long and one foot in diameter. The U.S. Air Force used the term “hypervelocity rod bundles” in a report. A magazine of these rods would be contained in a satellite. The rods would have fins and a small computer to control trajectory. These rods could be dropped from orbit a few thousand miles above the Earth. The rod would reach speeds of up to almost eight thousand miles per hour. When it hit, the rod would penetrate hundreds of feet into the earth. It would be able to destroy hardened bunkers or hidden underground military sites. Although the rod would cause a devastating explosion similar to a ground-penetration nuclear warhead, there would be no radioactive fallout.

      One big problem with the whole idea of Project Thor was the fact that it costs about ten thousand dollars per pound to launch anything into space. At twenty four thousand pounds per rod, it would cost two hundred and thirty million dollars just to put one rod in orbit above the Earth. However, the cost of launching is going down rapidly as private space companies vie for launch business. The new Falcon Heavy lifter from SpaceX will be able to launch twice the payload at one third the cost when compared to the current heavy launch vehicles. That would reduce the cost of putting on rod in orbit to about forty million dollars. The cost of one Minuteman III ICBM in today’s dollars is would be about fifty seven million dollars. This means that one of the kinetic bombardment rods would be cheaper to launch into orbit that it would cost for a new Minuteman missile. Considering that the annual U.S. defense budge is approaching six hundred billion dollars, forty million dollars to put a rod in orbit is really a small part of the budget and quite feasible.