Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bigelow and ULA Deal: Space Real Estate For Sale!

The Shape of things to come: A Bigelow B330 station in orbit with commercial capsule and solar powering unit attached. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.

This is a good week. And for space enthusiasts, our tomorrows are looking brighter! On April 11, Bigelow Aerospace (producer of the inflatable space module idea) and ULA (United Launch Alliance, the corporation that launches the Atlas V rocket and payloads) jointly announced their plan to launch into Earth orbit two of Bigelow's giant B330 inflatable space stations. The modules would be launched aboard the reliable Atlas V rockets, and provide, for the first time, a commercial (non-governmental) foothold in low Earth Orbit that could be rented by corporations or countries for space research or space tourism.

Artist's rendition of how the BEAM will look when attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
Currently, NASA is about to test the first ever Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) when it removes the collapsed module from the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo ship, and attach it to the U.S.-built Tranquility module on the ISS. It will be deployed, then studied for a two-year experiment that will help convince NASA engineers of the viability of using the expandable modules for future space station design. To this date, Bigelow has already had two expandable test units launched into free-floating orbits for testing, and they worked excellently.

Cut-away view of the inside of the B330 Module. The size advantage is obvious. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
 Bigelow calls the B330 "a game changer," and it is. The 330 refers to 330 square feet of room inside the module. It has a central, or core unit that includes the electronics and equipment. The outside walls of the module are expanded out from the core, and are made of up to 36 layers of vectran, which is far stronger than kevlar and more flexible. The outer layers would provide better protection from radiation and micrometeroid strikes than the current walls of space station modules. With 330 square feet, a B330 has almost three times the space of the US Destiny module on the ISS. It will be fitted with a docking port compatible with the different commercial spacecraft under development as well as NASA's Orion and the Russian Soyuz.

NASA's assistant director Lori Garver inside a mock-up of a Bigelow module gives an idea of the spaciousness inside the module. Credit: NASA.

Expanded arrangement showing how the B330 would be transported aboard the Atlas V rocket. Credit: ULA.
To get the B330s into space, ULA plans to use the Atlas V rocket with its large payload version with expanded fairings to protect the large B330 core assembly. For extra propulsion, the rocket would be assisted with 5 solid rocket boosters. With these two facilities in space, ULA predicts additional flights when its Atlas rockets are used for launching commercial capsules (such as the Boeing CST100) to dock with the modules.

Expanded space station proposal beyond the B330.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
The Bigelow/ULA plan schedules these modules to be placed in Low Earth Orbit in 2020. Current NASA plans suggest that the ISS project would be terminated by 2024. The ability to install a B330 onto the ISS has been brought up as a way to extend the life of the station and open it to a greater use by other corporations and other countries' space programs. With two additional stations in orbit, we will finally have additional destinations for commercial programs besides a restricted, government-controlled space laboratory. Whether for business use or as a "space hotel" for space tourism programs, the B330s will provide the first available "real estate" to be purchased in orbit. I have always said that our space programs will be very limited until someone figures a way to make money in space. Just like the birth of aviation, mere flights for the experience were not enough to provide room for the development of airlines and airliners; people wanted a place to go to and visit.

Another space station concept. Add a propulsion module and it could fly to Mars. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
Bigelow modules also offer opportunities for human exploration of the solar system. No one would want to fly in a cramped Orion capsule all the way to Mars or beyond. But add some Bigelow modules, and you'll have the space you need to live in on those long journeys. There are even plans for placing variants of the modules on the lunar surface to create the first lunar permanent base.

Orbiting the Moon: Two B330 modules with a couple of Orion capsules and some power units attached. Our first Lunar station in orbit? Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
The success of Bigelow module structures will make an expansion of the space program achievable and more affordable. One can easily imagine how popular it will be to have a space hotel in orbit of the Moon with a short 2-day flight to the station and a 2-day return. Yes sir, space travel is about to get A LOT more interesting!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX Scores New Firsts with Dragon Launch

Dragon spacecraft being grappled with CanadArm2 robotic arm at the station. Credit: NASA

This weekend, SpaceX added to its list of firsts when the Dragon cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. To begin with, the rocket was the new Falcon 9 "Full Thrust" version which replaces all Falcon 9 launches now. The modified thrusters enable the second stage to fire longer, allowing SpaceX engineers to attempt more first stage recovery attempts. 
Dragon CRS-8 with aerodynamic fairings ready for launch. Credit: SpaceX.
Liftoff occurred at 4:43p.m. EDT from the Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The flight went very well, with clear visibility and great telescopic views of the stage separation. The previous Falcon 9 and Dragon launch ended in disaster, as the Dragon spacecraft was lost and the returning first stage was destroyed in a landing attempt. 
Liftoff from LC-40, the same launch pad that saw dozens of Titan 3 and Titan 4 rockets lift off, including a flight of the Cassini probe to Saturn. Credit: SpaceX.
SpaceX has tried four times previously to land the first stage of the rocket on a barge out at sea, with all four being losses of the rockets and damage to the barge. This fifth experiment was a total success, as having delivered the second stage and Dragon into an orbital trajectory, the first stage fell to its designated landing location, then re-ignited the engine for a controlled descent. It was obvious on the monitors that the seas were somewhat choppy and that there was a good cross-wind blowing (for this rocket, any wind is a cross-wind!). 
View from the observer aircraft as the Falcon first stage descends towards the tiny landing barge. Credit: SpaceX.
 The Falcon stands successfully on the pad with the engine deactivated and legs completely deployed. Credit: SpaceX
Although the commercial company Blue Origins was the first to successfully land its Alan Shephard rocket upright after a test flight in Texas (and they've done it 3 times now!), SpaceX had the harder task as the Falcon flies higher and faster to place its spacecraft into an orbital trajectory. And to land the stage in a moving, choppy sea on a tiny barge is just outright fantastic flying.
Dragon approaches the ISS. Credit: NASA.
Meanwhile, in space, the Dragon cargo spacecraft reached orbit and began its chase to rendezvous withe the International Space Station. Over a two day period, the Dragon re-ignited its engine to change altitude and maneuver closer to  the station. Eventually on Sunday morning, the spacecraft came within range for astronauts Tim Peake and Jeff Williams to extend the CanadArm2 robotic arm and grapple the craft, guiding it to berth at the Harmony module.
Dragon at left is seen in the same view with the Cygnus spacecraft (middle) and a Soyuz spacecraft (on the far right). Credit: NASA.
With the Dragon docked, it also set a first as the first time it has been docked to the ISS at the same time as the Cygnus cargo spacecraft! Together with the Russian Progress robotic spacecraft, the three ships are able to bring quite a tonnage of supplies and equipment to the ISS. Of the three craft, however, only the SpaceX Dragon can safely return materials and experiments to the surface of the Earth.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Many Flights at Spaceport: ISS

Crowded spaceport. Credit: NASA.
Expedition 47 is off to a great start as multiple flights of cargo ships arrive at the station to refuel, resupply, and deliver experiments to the ISS. The goal was to deliver three unmanned cargo ships to the station in three weeks, and prepare to add an expandable module to the station assembly.
Night launch of the Atlas 5 carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship.
The race started when United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas 5 from the Florida Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It lifted an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft, named the S.S. Rick Husband (named after the Columbia shuttle commander killed during re-entry), to an orbital rendezvous with ISS. On board the Cygnus was 7,500 pounds of supplies and experiments. One of the experiments includes detailed observations and analysis of meteors plunging into the Earth's atmosphere.
Cygnus S.S. Rick Husband on approach to station.
The cargo ship docked with the station on Saturday, March 26th. Astronaut Tim Kopra used the CanadArm2 to grapple the craft and attach it to the station. The craft is expected to stay at the station for about a month, then depart with 3000 pounds of trash on board. Before it burns up in re-entry, it will release a number of small Cube-Sats.
Progress 61 departs. A very expensive trash can, but necessary for the continued operations on the space station.
On March 30, the Russians got very busy. Progress 61, another unmanned cargo ship, was undocked from its position on the Zvesda module and maneuvered away from the station. It had already had its cargo unloaded and was refilled with garbage and unneeded equipment. Its berth would be needed for another cargo ship. Progress 61 is slated to burn up over the Pacific on April 8th, after ground controllers perform some tests. Also on the 30th, the Progress 63 ship was prepared for launch.
Progress 63 at the pad before launch.
 On March 31, Russia launched the Progress 63 spacecraft from its launch site in Baikonur. This Progress vehicle was an improved Progress MS, which includes communication and engineering upgrades which will be installed on all future Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. To give the ground controllers time for testing, the Progress 63 was sent into orbit for a 2-day trip to the rendezvous point rather than the current 6-hour typical flightpath.

Progress 63 reaches the ISS.
The docking with Progress 63 took place on April 2nd. It occupied the port at the end of the Zvesda module, which had just been vacated by Progress 61. On board the robotic craft was 3 tons of fuel, oxygen, and supplies for the crew. With its arrival, the Expedition 47 crew now has five spacecraft attached to the station: Two manned Soyuz craft (Soyuz 45 and 46), two Russian cargo ships (Progress 62 and 63), and the unmanned Cygnus spacecraft. It's about to get busier.

Earlier last month: The Bigelow Expandable Module is loaded onto the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship.
On this coming Friday, April 8, SpaceX will launch another of its Dragon unmanned cargo spaceships to rendezvous with the ISS. On board will be 6,900 pounds of hardware, supplies and science instruments. After a two-day flight, it will dock with the Harmony module. Significantly, it will carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, that will be attached to the US-built Tranquility module for testing over the next two years. Also traveling on the Dragon are some passengers: 20 Mice! The Rodent Research-3 experiment will focus on microgravity effects on bone-loss and tissue effects of flying in zero-gravity.