Some spaceflight stuff

There’s a lot of activity in the space sector at the minute in anticipation of the ending of one era and the start of another.

The end of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission will have to wait a little longer. Although the Japanese satellite made it back from the asteroid, got its canister back to Earth and the scientists recovered it and have identified particles inside the first collection chamber, the results of analysis of the particles are not likely until February or March next year.

The start of the third and final era of the Cassini mission. The satellite entered Saturn orbit in 2004 and conducted its four year mission with few problems. Since 2008, it has been running the Equinox mission extension. Now that has run out and the satellite has begun the seven year Solstice mission, which should see it to a spectacular end in the clouds of the ringed gas giant.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX space telescope studies an unusual target. Rather than gathering light like an ordinary telescope, it looks at particles. In particular, it studies neutral particles created by the collision of the solar wind outflow from the Sun with the material between the stars. Last year, it saw the image of a ribbon in space, interpreted as a magnetic flux tube. Further studies in the intervening time have shown this pattern to be altering on the six month timescale of the new observations. The ribbon is becoming a simpler pattern, with fewer loops and twists. This is rather faster than the eleven year solar activity cycle impacting on a uniform medium would suggest, giving us an interesting glimpse of what is happening out there. Details are reported here and here.

CryoSat is a satellite at the start of its life. The polar explorer is presently in orbit gaining data on the thickness of ice around the globe. That data needs to be calibrated and validated before full operations can go ahead. The commissioning phase will be completed in mid-October, but further validation will be required and will have to be done on the job. A validation workshop will therefore be held in ESA/ESRIN in Frascati (Rome), Italy from the 1st – 3rd February 2011. Details and flyer here.

Another satellite even earlier in its life is China’s latest Lunar satellite, Chang’e-2, which blasted off on a Long March 3C rocket earlier today (1st of October) – video here. The satellite, the second of China’s lunar program, is set to arrive in orbit in around five days and is being tracked by China with the help of ESA. The probe’s spaceframe was created as a spare for the first lunar probe, but rather than create an entirely new probe for the second mission, researchers pinned the new technology onto the old spaceframe. The probe includes a laser altimeter, a CCD camera and an impacter. It is designed to gather data for future missions and test key technologies. The next lunar mission is aiming to put a rover on the lunar surface and eventually the program hopes to put a man on the Moon.

From launched missions to scheduled to launch missions. The updated manifest for the final launch of the space shuttle and construction of the International Space Station has been announced. ESA plans the launch of ATV2 on the 15th of February, with NASA launching the final shuttle mission, STS-134, on the 27th of February. Roscosmos is looking into extra Soyuz launch and landing slots to add capacity if needed. Meanwhile, STS-133 still has to be launched and the 1st of November mission will be previewed in a press conference on the 21st of October. Details here.

Also set to blast off in November, the Hylas-1 satellite has been undergoing tests in India and is now set to be shipped to the launch pad in French Guiana, ESA’s spaceport ArianeSpace. The satellite is a public-private partnership between ESA and Avanti Communications to provide broadband capacity to customers in the EU, part of the EU’s commitment to universal 25mps broadband by 2025. The spaceframe has been purchased from India with Avanti providing the communications technology.

Some satellites aren’t yet scheduled for launch, but need to be shipped here and there to get them tested and together. Three different space telescopes are presently at different stages of this process. The LISA pathfinder mission, which will test the technologies to be deployed on the LISA gravitational wave observatory, has spent the summer having its electromagnetic fields and responses tested and checked. LISA will use precisely controlled spacecraft to hunt for the tiniest variations in position and as such need an extremely high level of knowledge about where each part of the spacecraft is and what it is doing. Parts of the spacecraft have also undergone thermal testing to see how the proximity and direction of the Sun will alter the spaceframe. Meanwhile MIRI, the Mid InfraRed Instrument, of the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive venture that will act as a Hubble Space Telescope equivalent in the infrared, has arrived at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for pressure testing. Finally, the Mechanical Service Module, which will act as the control system for the Gaia space telescope, which will perform precise astrometry, measuring the positions and motions of a billion stars in the Milky Way, has been put together. The thing now needs integrating with other parts that are scattered across the globe in various stages of construction and testing.

Onto future spacecraft and ESA has been asked to make a decision. Presently, it has the use of the ATV (Automatic Transfer Vehicle), an automated vehicle that can deliver stuff to the ISS, but then gets burnt up on reentry. A new vehicle, the ARV (Automatic Reusable Vehicle) has been proposed, which replaces the cargo module on the front of the ATV with a reentry capsule and also upgrades the service module. This would enable things to be returned from the ISS to the ground – such as science experiments and the like. However, there is some opposition to the craft, which some say has no future as the ATV is seemingly adequate for the jobs required of it and development of the ARV to full production capacity would probably leave little time before the ISS is decommissioned and the vehicle needing a new mission.

One possible new mission could be the development of private space hotels. There’s been a few proposals and actual launched vehicles from the USA, but now a consortium in Russia has announced plans to put up a space station. The CSS, or Commercial Space Station, will provide space for up to seven people (one commander and six non professionals) performing commercial research or just lounging about. The four room guesthouse will be supplied by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, taking advantage of the lack of alternatives in getting people into space and Russia’s enhanced relative capabilities when others around do start popping up with new launch vehicles – all of which will also be able to partner with the station. Orbital Technologies has teamed up with a state run company and the Russian space agency to make the project a reality. The station is, unlike the ISS’s modular creation, expected to be launched on a single rocket. Construction is expected in 2012 or 2013.

Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo, the space tourism craft operated by Virgin Galactic, has been built and is expected to begin operations in around eighteen months. Sir Richard Branson’s sights are also turning toward providing commercial satellites for the education sector as well as potentially space hotels (getting crowded up there…) and eventually a lunar habitat.

Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited has announced three Earth Observation satellites, costing £100 million are to be built and launched in 2013 to provide data commercially as well as a £10 million satellite construction and testing facility in Guildford.

Now onto conceptual spacecraft and one NASA plan to create a heavy lifting spacecraft from modified shuttle boosters, fuel tanks and engines has been obtained by a website. At present, NASA works on the Ares rocket, derived from the solid rocket boosters that appear at the sides of the big orange fuel tanks that supply the stuff that the shuttles burn to get into orbit. This new design would lose the shuttle, move the engines from the orbiter to the fuel tank and stick a capsule on top, with some other frills. A power system has been developed that would see energy taken from the solar wind. The satellite has the capability of taking charge from the stream of ions and electrons that constantly whiz from the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, but at present there’s no way to transfer the power back to Earth or any passing spacecraft that could use it.

And for some words on the future of spaceflight from those in whose hands it may potentially lie, the head of the UK Space Agency has been giving his view in an interview, as has the Director General of ESA.


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