News From Space: Cold War Chill Returning to Space

Space_race1[2]It’s no secret that relations between the US and Russia have been strained due to the latter’s recent military activities in Crimea. And now, it appears that Russia is using their space program as leverage in their ongoing fight over sanctions. Back in April, NASA announced that collaboration with Roscosmos – Russia’s Federal Space Agency – had ended for the time being. Since then, an escalating war of words and restrictions have followed.

For instance, in the past months, the U.S. has restricted communication between some American scientists and their Russian colleagues as part of their protest against Crimea. In response, Dmitry Rogozin – Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission – said on his Twitter feed that he is restricting the export to the US of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines, for uses that do not involve the U.S. military – a move which has temporarily grounded all US military satellites from being deployed into orbit.

NASA_trampolineMr. Rogozin also posted an image of a trampoline with a big NASA logo in the centre, saying that after 2020 it is the technology U.S. astronauts will need to use get to the International Space Station. One week later and in response, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos on the International Space Station hadn’t changed “one iota” in recent years, and has withstood the increasingly frosty atmosphere between Washington and Moscow over the events in the Crimea and Ukraine.

Still, Bolden indicated that if for one reason or other a country should drop out of the project, the others would seek to continue. But in the meantime, this would means the US would lose its capacity to put its own spy and military satellites into orbit, the future of the International Space Station (ISS) would be uncertain. In addition to the US, Japan, Europe and Canada are also members of the ISS and all currently depend on Russian Soyuz capsules to take astronauts to the space station since NASA retired its shuttle fleet.

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441All in all, it is a sad state of affairs, and not just because of the repercussions to space exploration and scientific research. As a product of post-Cold War co-operation, the ISS cost $100 billion to create and was arguably the most expensive multinational peacetime undertaking in history. Now, it is being threatened because the two nations that came together to make it a reality are regressing into a state of Cold War detente. And though the Russians currently feel that they have the upper hand, the long-term reality is far different.

Back in the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russian space programs were floundering. The Russian program was running broke because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was operating a space shuttle program that was proving to be more expensive than promised. The Americans were also having difficulty finding support for their Freedom space station project, which had a budget that was also ballooning upwards, and the Russian’s weren’t sure how much longer Mir would remain in operation.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)Both countries agreed the only way to keep their space programs alive and build a large space station was to share the costs and technology, which also allowed other countries from Europe, as well as Japan and Canada, to participate. In the 13 years since it has been occupied, the International Space Station has literally known no borders, as astronauts from dozens of nations have participated in missions that have had wide-ranging benefits.

And in the process, Russia has benefited greatly in financial terms as the US has paid tens of millions of dollars to have American astronauts fly aboard the former space station Mir and ride along on their Soyuz rockets. If this friendly arrangement breaks down, it will cost both countries dearly. Russia will lose all that income from the sale of its space technology, and the U.S. will have to accelerate the development of its own space capsules and rockets to launch people and satellites into space from American soil.

dream_chaserStanding on the sidelines are individuals and private companies like Elon Musk and SpaceX, the Texas company that already builds its own low-cost rockets, along with space capsules that have been delivering supplies to the Space Station. In addition, Sierra Nevada, a private aerospace contractor, is working with NASA to produce the Dream Chaser as part of the agency’s reusable vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing (VTHL) program.

Between SpaceX already delivering capsules to the ISS, its successful reusable rocket demonstrations, and the multiple proposals NASA has for a new era of space vehicles, the US space program may not be grounded for much longer. And there is something to be said about competition spurring innovation. However, one cannot deny that it is unfortunate that the US and Russia may be once again moving forward as competitors instead of companions, as that is likely to cost all sides far more.

But of course, there is still plenty of time for a diplomatic solution to tensions in the east, and plenty of reasons for all sides to avoid regressive to a Cold War footing. We’ve come too far at this point to turn back. And considering how much of our future depends on space travel and exploration going ahead unimpeded, we can’t afford to either!

Sources: cbc.ca, phys.org

News From Space: The Antares Rocket Launch!

antares_launch1Commercial space flight got a shot in the arm just two days ago thanks to the flawless launch of the privately developed Antares rocket from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On board was the first of many Cygnus craft, a commercial unmanned cargo resupply vehicle that is now making its way to the ISS in orbit. It was a day of firsts, and signaled the beginning of a new space race.

For starters, it was the first time the launchpad in Virginia was used, not to mention the maiden flight of a Cygnus craft. But perhaps most importantly, it was the first time in a long time that supplies and equipment were bound for the International Space Station from American soil. Since its cancellation in 2011, NASA’s space program has been forced to rely on the Russians and an aging fleet of Soyuz rockets to send astronauts and supplies into orbit.

spaceX_elonmuskAnd, as already noted, it was a big day for commercial space flight, since both the Antares and the Cygnus were produced by the Orbital Sciences Corporation. For some time now, SpaceX has been leading the charge to develop rockets and spacecraft for private commercial use. Now, with NASA awarding OSC contracts to restore America’s ability to mount resupply missions, it seems they might have some competition.

The “picture perfect” blastoff took place at 10:58 a.m. EDT on the morning  of Sept. 18 from Virginia and was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. The launch was reported as being incredibly beautiful as the rockets two stage engines spewed intensely bright flames and send out reverberations that wowed the people watching and woke people who were still asleep in the nearby community of Chincoteague.

antares_deploymentAnother historic first that bears mentioning is the fact that this latest mission happens to be the heaviest cargo load ever delivered to the ISS by a commercial vehicle. And by awarding contracts for such missions to private companies, NASA hopes to be able to free more of its budget up for long-term missions. These include exploration beyond low earth orbit, getting people back to the Moon and beyond to deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke glowingly of the launch in a statement and praised OSC for their role in making it happen:

Today marks a milestone in our new era of exploration as we expand the capability for making cargo launches to the International Space Station from American shores.  Orbital’s extraordinary efforts are helping us fulfill the promise of American innovation to maintain our nation’s leadership in space.

According to ongoing mission updates, the Cygnus spacecraft successfully unfurled its solar panels starting 1.5 minutes after separation from the second stage, which took place about 10 minutes after launch. Currently, Cygnus is traveling at 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph) and will rendezvous with the space station on Sunday, Sept. 22.

antares_launch2Once there, the cargo vessel will deliver about 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew. The flight, known as Orb-D1 is a demonstration mission to prove that Cygnus can conduct a complex series of maneuvers in space safely bringing it to the vicinity of the ISS.

And once the mission is complete and the supplies delivered, we can expect to be hearing about more missions like this one! Between SpaceX’s Dragon module, the Cygnus, and both companies ongoing rocket tests, space will is likely to become the new frontier where private enterprises carry out their endless dance of competition.

And of course, there are some cool videos of the launch to behold. So behold!

Time-lapse video of Antares deployment:


Antares launch:


Sources:
universetoday.com, (2)

A Menu for the Mars Mission

hi-seas1Throughout the summer, six people participated in an experiment designed to test how people will deal with the physical and psychological strangeness of a manned space journey. Known as the “Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation” (HI-SEAS) study, the research took place on a desolate slope of an abandoned quarry in Hawaii, 8,000 feet above sea level.

Here, the volunteers lived in a two-story geodesic dome and put on a full space suit to venture outside. Their communications were limited, their shower time rationed, and each spent much of their time conducting individual “space” experiments. But most importantly, they were eating food fit for a Mars astronaut. This was the main purpose of the experiment, testing the menu that manned missions to Mars will have to offer.

hi-seas2For years now, scientists have been trying to find ways to make astronaut food more palatable. In space, the food is either dehydrated and requires water and heat to process, or is rendered in liquid form that has to be drunk right out of the package. But on Mars, where there would be gravity, astronauts could actually cook their own food from “shelf-stable” ingredients.

The goal of the HI-SEAS study, run by investigators at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University, has been to figure out the best strategies for nourishing Mars astronauts. On any long and isolated mission, especially on one as long as a hypothetical Mars mission. “menu fatigue” is a real danger. Astronauts need to consume a set amount of calories a day, otherwise they might lose body mass and bone density.

Lemon Dill Pasta Salad
Lemon Dill Pasta Salad

For the sake of testing the menu, the mission relied on a six-member crew of scientific-minded professionals who kept detailed logs of their food adventures. They filled out smell, taste, and appearance questionnaires for each meal; weighed each food item; tracked water consumption, cooking and cleanup time; and even monitored their sense of smell to see if food boredom had any physiological effects.

Another fun aspect was that they also tested crowdsourced recipes submitted by the public. Each recipe was limited to using the list of ingredients available. There was “Cajun Style Spam Jambalaya” and “Oatmeal Thickened Beef Stew” for dinner, “Blueberry Lemon Cornmeal Pancakes” for breakfast, and even a spicy veggie sushi as an appetizer.

"Dark Matter" cake
“Dark Matter” cake

Kate Greene, a science and technology journalist on the mission, had this to say about the menu:

I’ve enjoyed so many meals here, actually. A quinoa salad, breakfast tacos, borscht, beef tagine, and all the breads we make with our bread maker… We’ve also had cakes and puddings and pies, grilled cheese sandwiches and soups like seafood chowder.

With today’s technology, it could take as long as 300 days to even get there. But even with fully-stocked shelves, life on a Mars mission would still be a major challenge. In addition to fighting menu boredom, there was also the issue of regular boredom. Confined to their shelters and forced to wear space suits to go outside, the “astronauts” began to miss the everyday activities they used to take for granted.

hi-seas5As Greene indicated, she came to miss such things as walking about outside, biking, and swimming, and gained a new appreciation for her old life:

Something I realized about my day-to-day life on Earth is that it’s full of novelty. I see new people all the time and I go to different places. In the habitat, novelty has been a lot harder to come by, and it was subtle when I found it–a new recipe, a different way to arrange the furniture, or someone saying something completely out of character. When I noticed these slight changes, my joy and excitement was embarrassingly disproportionate.

On August 13th, Greene and her five colleagues emerged into the daylight without a spacesuit for the first time in months. After a media event and a debrief with the principal researchers on the NASA-funded project, they continued to sift through all of their research data, which ranged from scientific research, their food study, and even a record of their sleep cycles.

hi-seasmapAll of this information is likely to be very useful in coming years and decades. Back in August, on the one-year anniversary of the Curiosity Rover’s landing on Mars, NASA chief Charles Bolden said he believed that human footprints would follow in its path, and 2030 remains the projected date for putting those boots on the Red Planet.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, hi-seas.org