News from Space: ISS Sends First Transmission with Lasers

ISS In recent years, the International Space Station has become more and more media savvy, thanks to the efforts of astronauts to connect with Earthbound audiences via social media and Youtube. However, the communications setup, which until now relied on 1960’s vintage radio-wave transmissions, was a little outdated for this task. However, that has since changed with the addition of the Optical Payload for Lasercom Science (OPALS) laser communication system.

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, OPALS is designed to test the effectiveness of lasers as a higher-bandwidth substitute for radio waves and deal with substantially larger information packages. As Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a recent video statement:

We collect an enormous amount of data out in space, and we need to get it all to the ground. This is an alternative that’s much faster than our traditional radio waves that we use to communicate back down to the ground.

nasa-opalsThe OPALS laser communication system was delivered to the ISS on April 20 by a SpaceX unmanned Dragon space freighter and is currently undergoing a 90-day test. For this test, the crew used the OPALS to transmit the “Hello, World” video from the ISS to a ground station on Earth. This was no simple task, since the station orbits Earth at an altitude of about 418 km (260 mi) at travels at a speed of 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph). The result is that the target is sliding across the laser’s field of view at an incredibly fast rate.

According to Bogdan Oaida, the OPALS systems engineer at JPL, this task was pretty unprecedented:

It’s like trying to use a laser to point to an area that’s the diameter of a human hair from 20-to-30 feet away while moving at half-a-foot per second. It’s all about the pointing.

However, the test went off without a hitch, with the 37 second-long video taking 3.5 seconds to transmit – much faster than previous downlink methods. Abrahamson said that the video, which is a lively montage of various communication methods, got its title as an homage to the first message output by standard computer programs.

earth-from-ISSThe OPALS system sought out and locked onto a laser beacon from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory ground station at the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California. It then transmitted its own 2.5-watt, 1,550-nanometer laser and modulated it to send the video at a peak rate of 50 megabits per second. According to NASA, OPALS transmitted the video in 3.5 seconds instead of the 10 minutes that conventional radio would have required.

Needless to say, the astronauts who contribute to the ISS’s ongoing research programs are pretty stoked about getting this upgrade. With a system that is capable of transmitting exponentially more information at a faster rate, they will now be able to communicate with the ground more easily and efficiently. Not only that, but educational videos produced in orbit will be much easier to send. What’s more, the ISS will have a much easier time communicating with deep space missions in the future.

nasa-opals-5This puts the ISS in a good position to oversea future missions to Mars, Europa, the Asteroid Belt, and far, far beyond! As Abrahamson put it in the course of the video statement:

It’s incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station. We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions.

And in the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, showing the “Hello World” video and explaining the groundbreaking implications of the new system:


News from SpaceX: the Dragon V2 and SuperDraco

spaceX_elonmuskSpaceX has been providing a seemingly endless stream of publicity lately. After months of rocket testing and sending payloads to the International Space Station, they are now unveiling the latest in some pretty impressive designs. This included the SuperDraco, a new attitude-control thruster; and the new Dragon V2 – a larger, more powerful, and manned version of the reusable Dragon capsule. These unveilings came within a short space of each other, largely because these two developments will be working together.

The first unveiling began back in February, when SpaceX announced the successful qualification testing of its SuperDraco rocket engine. Designed to replace the Draco engines used for attitude control on the Dragon orbital spacecraft, the SuperDraco will act as the Dragon’s launch emergency escape system, as well as giving it the ability to make a powered landings. Since that time, the company has announced that it will be added to the new Dragon capsule, which was unveiled just days ago.

superdraco-testThe SuperDraco differs from most rocket engines in that its combustion chamber is 3D printed by direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), where complex metal structures are printed by using a laser to build the object out of metal powders one thin layer at a time. The regeneratively-cooled combustion chamber is made of inconel; a family of nickel-chromium alloy that’s notable for its high strength and toughness, and is also used in the Falcon 9’s Merlin engine.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s Chief Designer and CEO, had this say about the innovation behind the new rocket:

Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.

MarsOneOther notable features include the propellent, which is a pair of non-cryogenic liquids – monomethyl hydrazine for the fuel and nitrogen tetroxide for the oxidizer. These are hypergolic, meaning that they ignite on contact with one another, which helps the SuperDraco to restart multiple times. It’s also built to be deep throttled, and can go from ignition to full throttle in 100 ms. But what really sets the SuperDraco apart is that is has 200 times the power of the Draco engine, which works out to  7,440 kg (16,400 lbs) of thrust.

The SuperDraco’s main purpose is to provide attitude control for the Dragon capsule in orbit and during reentry, as well as acting as the craft’s launch escape system. Unlike previous US manned space capsules of the 1960s and ‘70s, the next version of the Dragon won’t use a tower equipped with rocket motors to carry the capsule away in case of a launch accident. The SuperDraco can be used at any point in the launch from pad to orbit, not just during the first minutes of launch, as the towers were.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeEight engines firing for five seconds are enough to carry the capsule safely away from the booster with 120,000 lb of axial thrust. In addition, the eight engines also provide a high degree of redundancy should one or more engines fail. But what’s really ambitious about the SuperDraco is that, like the Falcon 9 booster, the Dragon is designed to ultimately return to its spaceport under its own power and land with the precision of a helicopter, and it’s the power and control of the SuperDraco that makes this possible.

SpaceX is even looking beyond that by planning to use the SuperDraco engine for its Red Dragon Mars lander; an unmanned modification of the Dragon designed for exploring the Red Planet. The SuperDraco will make its first flight on a pad abort test later this year as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. Using 3D printing to cut the cost of production is in keeping with Musk’s vision of reducing the associated costs of spaceflight and putting rockets into orbit.

spaceX_dragon_v2But equally impressive was the unveiling of the Dragon V2 manned space capsule, which took place at a brief media event at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters at the end of May. This larger, more powerful version of the reusable Dragon capsule will one day carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return to Earth to land under its own power. This latest development brings the company one step closer towards its ultimate goal of a fully reusable manned capsule capable of making a powered landing.

Billed as a “step-change in spacecraft technology,” the Dragon V2 that Musk unveiled is larger and more streamlined than the first Dragon, with a cabin large enough to accommodate up to seven astronauts for several days in orbit comfortably. The interior is outfitted with touchscreen control panels and a more sophisticated piloting system, so it can dock with the space station autonomously or under the control of the pilot instead of relying on one of the ISS’s robotic arms.

spaceX_dragon_v2_1For returning to Earth, the Dragon V2 has the third version of the PICA-X heatshield, which is SpaceX’s improvement on NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield. Another nod to reusability,  this shield is about to carry out more flights before needing a refit since it ablates less than previous versions. And of course, the capsule will be outfitted with eight SuperDraco engines, which give it a combined thrust of almost 60,000 kgs (131,200 lbs).

However, Musk points out that Dragon V2 still carries a parachute, but that’s only a backup system, similar to the analog joystick and manual controls that are available in the cockpit. Like these, the parachute is only meant for use in the event of a malfunction of the SuperDraco engines, which can still make a landing if two of the eight engines fail. If the landing is successful, Musk says that all the Dragon V2 needs to fly again is refueling.

And the arrival of these new machines couldn’t have been more timely, given the termination of NASA’s cooperation with Roscosmos – Russia’s federal space agency. With reusable craft that are produced by the US and that can be launched from US soil, Russia’s aging Soyuz rockets will no longer be necessary. So much for the trampoline idea!

And of course, there are videos of the rocket test and the unveiling. Enjoy!

SuperDraco Test Firing:

SpaceX Dragon V2 Unveiling:

Sources:, (2),

News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back: