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)

Iran Launches Monkey Into Space (Apparently)

iran_rocketIn spite of years being under a trade embargo, Iran claims to be making some rather interesting breakthroughs. In addition to drones, long range missiles and stealth aircraft, they now claim to have sent a primate into space. According to the state news network, the successful flight involved a relatively small rocket that went straight up and down, and is a “prelude to sending humans.” Oh, and the monkey arrived safe and sound.

Whereas some defense analysts in the US and other nations worry that this was a demonstration of potential military might, others see it in different terms. For example, Jonathan McDowell – a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launches and space activity – claims that the exercise was merely a step towards Iran’s stated goal of developing rockets that could send human astronauts into space, a goal Tehran has repeated publicly for more than a year.

Alive, but not comfortable!
Alive, but not comfortable!

“It doesn’t demonstrate any militarily significant technology,” he said. “This is a tiny old rocket, and what’s on top is useful only for doing astronaut stuff.” Charles P. Vick, an expert on Iranian rockets at GlobalSecurity.org, went farther, stating that the report may have been a fabrication, seeing as how Iran tried and failed to perform the same launch operation back in 2011.
Naturally, there was also the propaganda value of the feet. James E. Oberg, a former NASA engineer and author of a dozen books on human spaceflight, claim that “to a large degree, it’s a fig leaf.” Apparently, such peaceful flights could take global attention off the nation’s military feats and ambitions, comparable to what North Korea does with much of its research and development programs.

In any case, the reportedly successful launch of the Kavoshgar-class rocket – which went by the name of Pishgam (trans: Pioneer) –  came amidst announcements by Iranian sources that stated they were developing a space capsule meant to hold human astronauts. “It’s based on Chinese technology,” Mr. Vick said, adding that Iran had nearly completed a large new launching pad big enough for powerful rockets that could loft warheads, satellites or people into space.

In short, we can expect little in the way of clarity and plenty in the way of worrying from western analysts over this latest development. And of course, as usual, the monkey always get forgotten in the mix! One thing that was not reported on was the brave little astronauts name. After all we’ve put them through for the sake of advances space travel, don’t the space monkeys deserve the same kind credit as human astronauts? Hell, even Russia put Laika on a commemorative stamp!

laika-stampSee? Guess you got to die if you’re an animal and want some recognition around here! Rest in peace Laika! Click on the links below to read more:

Source: The New York Times.com, Universtoday.com

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier… Again!

A very interesting anniversary came to pass this past October 14th. It was exactly 65 years ago to the day that pilot and daredevil Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier. Yeager was just 24 years old when he made history on that day, and his exploits went on to be  chronicled in the book (and film) “The Right Stuff”. And wouldn’t you know it; Yeager, now 89, chose to make the occasion by breaking the sound barrier again.

But before getting into that, I would like to provide a recap on the events surrounding Yeager’s historic accomplishment. The year was 1947, the Second World War had ended just two years before, and for those old enough to remember, the world was a pretty scary place as Russian and American scientists competed to be the first to break scientific and technological barriers. In this particular race, the US was the first, when from his Bell X-1 rocket craft, Yeager reached a speed of 1126 km/h (700 miles per hour), or Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 13100 meters (43,000 feet).

For many years, Yeager found himself being chased by younger pilots in newer craft as they sought to challenge him and break new records in speed. Never the one to shy away from a fight, Yeager continually outdid them, setting new records for supersonic speed until his eventual retirement, by which time the astronauts were making the big headlines by being the first human beings to make it into space and orbit the planet.

Yeager retired with honors, having earned himself the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force. And just the other day, Yeager celebrated the anniversary of his historic flight by stepping into the back seat of a retired F-15 fighter that broke the sound barrier at 10:24 a.m. on Sunday.

Check out the video of Yeager’s latest flight below.