Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First commercial space station to launch in only four years

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace partnered with the United Launch Alliance to launch their 330-cubic-meter expandable space habitat—the B330—using ULA's Atlas V rocket in the 2019-2020 time frame.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO, said in a news release. “This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The announcement is a first-of-its-kind partnership of two commercial space companies—one a launch provider and the other a space habitat company—working to develop human infrastructure in low-Earth orbit without the aid of any government. That isn't to say that the companies don't want to do business with governments.

The B330 is designed to be a completely self-contained space station. But, according to Robert Bigelow, the CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, he would like to see one attached to the International Space Station.

"We are trying to acquire permission from NASA to be able to locate a B330 on [the ISS]," Bigelow said, "If we're able to do that and have [a B330] be there, we are asking, also, that we be given consideration to be able to commercialize time and volume."

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow said this would be no different than having a 30-story building and trying to lease a number of floors. He continued the analogy by stating that maybe NASA could be an anchor tenant to this first B330 at the International Space Station.

This module, if attached to ISS, would increase the station's volume by 30 percent. The craft will support research in microgravity including, but not limited to, scientific missions and manufacturing processes. Bigelow also hopes that the module, and other free-flying versions of it, will support space tourism and be able to be used on missions that go beyond LEO to the Moon or Mars.

Transportation to these modules, be it at ISS or elsewhere, will be done by NASA's current crop of commercial crew providers. Bigelow believes that there is enough of a market to support four commercial transportation companies. He cited Boeing's CST-100, SpaceX's Crew Dragon, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser and Blue Origin's yet-to-be-unveiled orbital spacecraft.

The B330 is currently being developed. The companies will work together to develop the business construct, commercial product offerings and marketing plans. Only when the spacecraft design is proven and a market shown to exist will additional habitats be deployed in other locations.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX: launching, landing and berthing into history

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches the CRS-8 Dragon to the International Space Station. The
first stage of the booster would land on an ocean-going platform only nine minutes
later. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Over the last few days, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket, delivered a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station and, as a bonus, successfully landed the first stage of the booster on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. It's safe to say that this was one of the best weeks in the NewSpace company's history.

On April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EST (20:43 GMT), the Falcon 9 rocket soared into the late afternoon skies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It carried the CRS-8 Dragon capsule—the first to launch since the ill-fated CRS-7 mission. It was a textbook launch.

A little over two minutes into flight, the booster's first stage had finished it's job and detached from the second stage, which fired and continued on to orbit. Then, the rocket did something the company has been trying for a while now: it turned around and slowed itself for a soft touchdown on an ocean-going platform.

The Of Course I Still Love You Automated Spaceport Droneship carried the first stage
back to Cape Canaveral on Sunday, April 10. Photo Credit: SpaceX
This was the fifth attempt at landing on an Automated Spaceport Drone Ship. All the others failed in some way (although one attempt only failed because a landing leg didn't lock into place). This flight, however, succeeded. It was a long time coming for SpaceX, as they had been testing and refining this process for the better part of two years now—not including the Grasshopper tests in Texas.

The atmosphere at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, was electric. This was the second time one of their first stage boosters was successfully recovered—the first at sea.

SpaceX has said they need to be able to land on both solid ground and the drone ships because of the high energy launch requirements on some payloads, such as those heading to geostationary transfer orbit or escape velocity.

Elon Musk, the company's founder said the firm hopes to re-certify and reuse the booster on a flight as early as June.

As if that accomplishment wasn't enough, SpaceX still had a mission to complete: sending the Dragon cargo ship to the space station. Right about the time of the first stage landing, the second stage had made it to orbit and released the space freighter.

Dragon approaches the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Tim Peake / NASA
Over the next two days, Dragon caught up with the space station. Finally, early Sunday morning, the capsule conducted its final approach to the orbiting laboratory.

Capture by the space station’s robotic Canadarm2 took place at 7:23 a.m. EDT (11:23 GMT) April 10 about 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the Pacific Ocean just west of Hawaii. Controlling the arm was Expedition 47 Flight Engineer and European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake. He, along with NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, monitored the approaching vessel from the Cupola window.

“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” Peake said after capture.

Dragon, upper left, is berthed to the orbiting laboratory. Cygnus is seen on the lower
right attached to the Unity Module. This is the first time two commercial vehicles were
at the station at the same time. Photo Credit: NASA TV
Then, over the next two hours, ground teams controlled the arm to move Dragon from its capture point just 33 feet (10 meters) below the station to the Earth facing port of the Harmony module.

The command to automatically drive four bolts in the Common Berthing Mechanism connecting Dragon and Harmony was given at about 8:55 a.m. CDT (13:55 GMT). The stations computer rejected the command at first, but upon trying a second time, it accepted and the spacecraft was officially berthed to the ISS at 8:57 a.m. CDT (13:57 GMT)—some 40 feet (12 meters) from the OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship attached to the Unity module. This marked the first time two commercial vehicles were at the station at the same time.

The arrival of Dragon also marked only the second time in space station program history that six vehicles were docked or berthed to the outpost. The last time was in 2011 when Space Shuttle Discovery was docked with the complex on mission STS-133—that orbiter’s final flight. That was also the only time all of the originally planned government-owned vehicles (Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Progress, Japanese HTV, and the European Space Agency’s ATV) were at the station at the same time. 

This is the eighth Dragon to visit the space station. It is also the 84th uncrewed cargo ship and 170th overall mission to reach the orbiting laboratory. 

The hatch between the cargo ship and space station will be opened early Monday morning. In the next three weeks, Dragon’s 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of food, supplies, and experiments will be unloaded and dispersed throughout ISS. Additionally, the vessel will be reloaded with trash and unneeded equipment to be returned to Earth. 

On April 16, CRS-8’s most notable cargo, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be robotically removed from the unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft and attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module. It will be expanded sometime in late May. 

Dragon is expected to remain attached to the space station until May 1 of this year (2016).

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Monday, April 4, 2016

Experimental feature: Liquid crystals in space

Microscopic detail of liquid crystal islands tethered like necklaces when an external
electric field is applied near the very thin film surface. Caption and Image Credit:
Liquid Crystal Physics Group / University of Colorado Boulder
The crew aboard the International Space Station perform hundreds of experiments each year in nearly all fields of science. There is so much that goes un-reported in mainstream news. Because of this, Orbital Velocity makes an attempt to feature some of these studies.

OASIS: Observation and Analysis of Smectic Islands In Space

Since liquid crystals are used in display screens on TVs, clocks and laptops, scientists want to understand how microgravity affects these crystals' ability to appear as both a liquid and a solid.

Liquid crystals flow like a liquid, but contain molecules that are arranged in a specific pattern—like a crystal. In addition to being used in LCDs, they form in naturally occurring things, such as soap bubbles. The OASIS experiment looks at these bubbles
Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra works to install the OASIS experiment in the
Microgravity Science Glovebox. Photo Credit: NASA

When you look at bubble, you usually see iridescent colors on its surface. This layer of color—liquid crystals—has a thickness that varies and changes when water flows back and forth over the surface. It is the thicker place on the bubble that scientists are looking at. They look like islands and are referred to as smectic islands.

On ISS, the experiment will produce these smectic islands on bubbles. The thickness could be as thin as 6 nanometers. For comparison, the thickness of human hair is 60,000 nanometers.

In normal gravity, when the islands become larger, they slide to the bottom of the bubble and "layer" up. But that doesn't happen in space.
A detailed look at the OASIS Experiment Module. Image Credit: NASA

This is the first experiment of its kind done in microgravity. Investigators hope to use the information found to make better displays in space—potentially using the technology as a heads-up display in spacesuit helmets.

By better understanding the physics behind these liquid crystals, improvements can be made on Earth-bound LCD screens. Such improvements include improved color contrasts and response times.

This experiment was sent to ISS on April 14, 2015 aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Crews conduct the study inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox, which is located inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory. The study is being lead by the University of Colorado Boulder.