BEAM module attached !

Bigelow Aerospace BEAM inflated module was correctly attached after extracting yesterday from Dragon spacecraft cargo module.

Yesterday, on April 16, 2016, BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) was attached to a berthing port on the aft side of the Tranquility module on 09:36 GMT. Operators remaining in ground control center send commands for Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach Dragon spacecraft (CRS-8 Dragon remained docked to Earth facing port of Harmony module since April 10, 2016). Next, Canadarm2 extracted BEAM (which dimensions before inflating are LxW 1.7 m x 2.4 m with mass at 1360 kg) from unpressurized section of the Dragon and slowly moved it to Tranquility module. During whole operation all operations performed by Canadarm2 were not involving crew members of International Space Station – extracting and attaching BEAM was done remotely from ground control center. At 09:36 GMT BEAM was attached and started its 2 year test period during which it will meet all the challenges associated with conventional modules of ISS: space radiation, sun wind, micro asteroids or possible contact with space debris. BEAM will be equipped with monitoring sensors and equipment for constant monitoring state of module. One of main objectives of the BEAM test mission is figuring how special fabric which is used for outer shell of the module stops radiation at the beginning and in the end of two years test period. It will give answer for question how resistant is Vectran-like material in period of time. Inflating with air and extending BEAM to regular size is planned for around 26th May 2016. It is not known if module will be inflated at once or it will take some time with breaks for monitoring if there is not leakage between flexible outer shell and docking port; after inflating, BEAM will be long for 4 m and wide for 3.2 m with volume of 16 cubic meters. After filling module with air and achieving full pressurized conditions, crew members will enter to BEAM and install sensors and monitoring equipment. Periodically they will enter to module, perform tests and check monitoring devices. Results from BEAM tests will serve during creating Bigelow commercial space station B330 which is largely based on BEAM technology, but mainly for developing NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Program.

On picture above You can see BEAM compared to size of men: NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and President and founder of Bigelow Aerospace Robert T. Bigelow are talking in front of the BEAM module.


XS-1 program enters in next phase

XS-1 project is under development by by three contractors along with their partners: Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Masten Space Systems chosen by DARPA. On April 7, 2016, it is entering in next phase.

XS-1 program of new unmanned spaceplane was started in 2013 as alternative launch vehicle for military purposes. At the beginning following companies joined program and managed to achieve contracts to build prototypes in July 2014:  Boeing in the cooperation with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems in the cooperation XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic. After one year, on August 2015, companies were awarded with $6.5 million each for further development of their projects. All three companies are required to present prototypes which will meet following demands described by DARPA: Spaceplane should be able to perform hypersonic flight with speed at least of 10 Ma with 1800 kg payload (400 kg in prototype) to reach trajectory orbit. It should be able to perform at least one flight per day in ten days one after another; spacecplane should be launched on atop of reusable booster (it is acceptable to use upper stages). Cost of the one flight of the XS-1 should not exceed $5 million. DARPA considers 2020 as possible date of the first flight of the XS-1.

Program was divided into three phases: first phase (which was actually consisted of Phase 1A and Phase 1B) was covering design concept propositions. Phase 2 covers final design, manufacturing and integration, assembling prototype and tests. Phase 3 is flight test campaign and preparing for manufacturing chosen spaceplane. Phase 2 was announced on April 7, 2016 with a proposer’s day on April 29. Since now it is known that Masten proposition was basing on VTVL, Northrop Grumman and Boeing presented VTHL conceptions but no further details were unveiled.

Idea of using spaceplane for delivering payload to orbit is present in American space industry since project of X-20 developed in late fifties. In spite of various spaceplanes which were only experimental vehicles like X-15, some of them became reality. Space Shuttle was some kind of spaceplane – maybe not in exact meaning of this word but for sure its conception was closer to spaceplane than anything else before X-37 (unmanned military spaceplane by Boeing). One of most iconic spaceplane projects with capability of manned flights and performing engine flight in atmosphere as ordinary jet plane was suspended X-33 by Lockheed, which was developed during eighties and early nineties as cooperation between NASA and US Air Force. Projects were representing different approaches but goal of every Spaceplane program was similar- reducing cost of launch and increasing frequency of launches. It seems that for the moment we will see another unmanned robotic spaceplane than American version of Skylon (read more here), but maybe this is just the beginning of the era of robotic launch vehicles where crew is totally separated from their vehicle.

Another aspect of the getting by military another medium sized Spaceplane (as X-37 is in service) is clear signal that DoD is rather considering miniaturization and reducing size of satellites in future. Relying on large satellites, which are for sure easy target for ASAT weapon is not reasonable, not to mention that single satellite in case of failure will be replaced not in days but probably in months. If USA would possess number of medium spaceplanes it would be quite useless without satellites which could be delivered to orbit. It is possible that change constellation of satellites (like remote sensing, reconnaissance, and weather or electronic warfare spacecrafts) from small number of large spacecrafts to smaller satellites is ultimate goal and next spaceplane program is just sign of future change. It is worth to remind that in published in the end of December 2015 report of U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission places threat of Chinese progress in ASAT weapon as one of the more important threats for USA security (read more here). It should not surprise that Department of Defense is intensifying effort to develop solution – cost effective, reusable spaceplane for lifting satellites to orbit is just necessary.


ISS on new position

International Space Station was set to the new position before docking of Soyuz spacecraft planned on the beginning of June.

Position was changed according to flight plan and was performed by Russian Mission Control Center placed in Korolev near Moscow. Maneuver was started and finished on April 13, 2016. Propulsion of Progress MS-02 spacecraft (which docked to SSVP-M8000 port on Zvezda module on April 2, 2016) started at 11:20 GMT for 254 s. It was enough to give ISS speed of 0.5 m/s and reach altitude of 404.3 km (it was increased for 900 m). At present orbit parameters of International Space Station are: inclination – 51, 62°, maximal altitude – 422.9 km, minimal altitude – 403.5 km and orbital period at 92.593 minutes.

Changing altitude by International Space Station was necessary for correct undocking and return to Earth of Soyuz TMA-19M which is planned for June 5th 2016. Places on Soyuz will occupy members of Expedition 46/47 – Yuri Malenchenko (Roscosmos), Timothy Kopra (NASA), Timothy Peake (ESA). Their places will not last free for long; next launch of manned Soyuz MS-01 is scheduled for 21st June 2016 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. This time three following astronauts will reach ISS: Anatoly Ivanishin (Roscosmos), Kathleen Rubens (NASA)  and Takuya Onishi (JAXA).

On picture above – undocking of Soyuz TMA-19 performed on 2010.


Orbital ATK with first contract for servicing satellites in space !

It seems that new milestone in human presence in space was achieved. Orbital ATK signed first contract for in-space servicing of satellite constellation of Intelsat Company.

Intelsat, Luxembourg based company, is one of the leading operators of fleet of communication and broadcasting satellites decided for pioneer step. Company signed on April 12, 2016, contract with Orbital ATK (well known from its Cygnus commercial supply vehicle) for first in history of space conquest, commercial service spacecraft to provide in-space maintenance for their satellites. Venture is called Commercial Servicing Vehicle (CSV) and will be based on developed since 2012 by Orbital Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1). Mission Extension Vehicle was project developed as cooperation with U.S. Space (50/50 contribution of U.S. Space and Orbital ATK) by Vivisat Company. General conception is based on demand for cost reducing and extending possibilities of possessed satellites. MEV-1 will be developed as spacecraft which could serve as reusable additional propulsion for changing orbit of satellite. It will fly to satellite remaining on orbit (which could be for example out of fuel or if there is necessity to save fuel remaining in tanks for other purposes than changing orbit) attach to it and using own thrusters move it into other position. After reaching new position, MEV will detach and perform next mixt mission. In 2012 Vivisat announced that project is ready to be offered on commercial market, but company failed to find any potential customers that time. Now it seems that everything changed and this ambitious venture became reality sooner than could ever suspect; first MEV spacecraft will be launched on 2018 and after one year tests it will become operational on 2019. It will start its mission from relocating Intelsat satellites which will be still technically in good condition to start new mission from different position. Due the fact that MEV will be fully reusable (only limit is the fuel but this problem could be solved by creating refueling spacecraft which will be launched as piggyback payload during other missions performed by Orbital ATK) cost of the service will be significantly lower than sending next satellite as replacement. In spite of the launch cost, customer is avoiding paying for payload which is still in operational condition in satellite on orbit.

Orbital ATK states that this is only the beginning of building their supremacy on market of new space services. President of Orbital ATK, David W. Thompson states that:

“There is a vital need to service fully functional but ageing satellites in both commercial and government markets. Backed by our continued investment, today’s announcement signals that we are just getting started in expanding our CSV fleet to provide a diverse array of in-space services in the future.”

In fact it seems that Orbital ATK is leader of in-space servicing. Another Luxembourg based company with large satellite constellation, SES, announced about progressing talks with Orbital ATK and MDA about creating servicing satellite to meet their demands. DARPA started to develop own program assuming more advanced actions like refueling or even swapping payload or repairing satellites, could be better solution for commercial companies. Unfortunately this program is at the moment in early phase of development, not to mention that almost all satellites remaining in space are not able to perform refueling or swapping payload. DARPA is now seeking for potential partner for developing prototype, but it could be possible that Orbital ATK will develop such technology earlier. For the moment Orbital ATK is leader and probably strength its position in 2016.

On picture above: Vanguard satellite from 1957 – sometimes satellites need something more than refueling…


Kepler exited from Emergency Mode

Thanks to the efforts of engineers on Earth, Kepler space telescope is not in Emergency Mode anymore. For the present moment Campaign 9 observation mission is still suspended, according to NASA statement from April 11, 2016.

NASA announced about changing EM (Emergency Mode) to Point Rest State (PRS) after four days of attempts of bringing back Kepler to good state. Point Rest State means that spacecraft remains at the moment with most economic mode and is using small amounts of fuel. It is positioned with antennas toward to Earth and is able to downlink telemetry data to ground control center along with reports of its state. What is important for operators, Kepler will also downlink telemetry data and data on its health from time before it turned to Emergency Mode – NASA will be able to investigate for the reasons and take action to this anomaly was not repeated during the mission. Operators and engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Ball Aerospace and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder performed great job bringing Kepler to life, but still spacecraft is under continuous control. Final decision if Kepler will return to its normal science service will be made up in the end of the week. It is worth to remind that Campaign 9 will last until 1 July 2016 when Kepler will not be able to take imaging of the galactic center due the change of vantage point.

K2 Campaign 9 was dedicated to perform observation of gravitational microlensing events from Earth and from Kepler. Result of this experiment will be measuring parallax effect in the shape and time of the lensing effect. Experiment is planned to last for 75 days.


Nanocrafts targeted into stars

New initiative announced in Moscow on April 12, 2016, by Russian businessman Yuri Milner and British cosmologist Stephen Hawking seems to have potential to change the world if succeed. 

It is named “Breakthrough Starshot” and is worth, according to founder, Yuri Milner $100 million. Board of the project consists of Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckenberg; name of the program is truly well representing whole concept – first private deep space exploration program with ambitious goal – reaching star which is closest to Earth in solar system – Alpha Centauri (apart from the Sun). Mission objective seems virtually impossible in present state of technology. With present technical abilities any spacecraft with conventional propulsion will reach Alpha Centauri after 30000 years of space travel. There is also one theoretical issue – fuel. Deep space exploration spacecraft needs fuel for correcting course and for powering onboard instruments. Distance to Alpha Centauri is just too long and spacecraft would not be able to power itself during such long journey not to mention about 30000 years of engine flight. “Breakthrough Starshot” represents different and revolutionary approach to deep space exploration. It assumes using nanotechnology and solar sail propulsion. To give spacecraft appropriate speed for travelling and reaching Alpha Centauri in reasonable time, spacecraft should achieve great speed. It could be possible if spacecraft would be extremely small – with weight around few grams. Then spacecraft could use energy impulse from Earth to its solar sail to start flight and next use solar wind to achieving greater speed.  This is just essential of the “Breakthrough Starshot” – at the moment it is basing on two elements: StarChip and Lightsail. First one will be microelectronic, highly integrated component built with nanotechnology and containing camera, photon thruster, power supply, navigation and communication equipment. Second, Lightsail would be main propulsion – built with ultra-thin light and extremely durable (with thickness of couple atoms) solar sail. Such spacecraft could reach Alpha Centauri in less than twenty years. According to official site of the project, it is planned to produce large number of Nano spacecrafts and lift them to orbit where they would start they journey. Solution for the communication problems, which are obviously for such long distances, will be utilizing of the Nano laser emitter for downlink.

Project due its open character is rather vision than precisely planned mission with scheduled launch date. Due the very ambitious goal there are more questions than answers – at the moment nanotechnology is not developed enough to create such spacecraft. Solar sails are still not efficient to speed up spacecraft to required speed. During such long space travel spacecraft should be highly autonomous due the great delays in communication (for example spacecraft should be able to avoid collisions with space objects for its own) and it requires numbers of sensors and thrusters for maneuvering which are not possible to be built in nanotechnology. But still it is more direction and idea than real space mission (or source of advertisement for main sponsors). Although it is worth to remind that in early thirties no one could even dream about sending man in space, but it was possible only thirty years after.

On picture above You can see vision of Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft powered with Lightsail, which receives impulse form Earth to start its journey.


Airbus with new contract for CNES MicroCarb satellite

Airbus Defence and Space was chosen to build new research satellite for French space agency CNES. 

Airbus announced about grabbing contract for designing and manufacturing of new research satellite for CNES. It will be MicroCarb, satellite for measuring level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Mission of the satellite (which start is planned for 2020) will be focused on seeking for sources of greenhouse gas, monitoring level of CO2 in atmosphere, analyzing its absorption and studying influence of greenhouse gas for Earth natural environment. Program will be based on cooperation between CNES and following institutions: Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE),  Centre d’études spatiales de la biosphère (CESBIO), Centre national de recherches météorologiques (CNRM), Groupe de spectrométrie moléculaire et atmosphérique (GSMA), Laboratoire inter-universitaire des systèmes atmosphériques (LISA), Laboratoire de météorologie dynamique (LMD) and Laboratoire de physique moléculaire pour l’atmosphère et l’astrophysique (LPMAA). MicroCarb will be first satellite designed only for measuring and monitoring carbon dioxide fully designed and manufactured in Europe and probably one of the most innovative and technically advanced in the world. MicroCarb will cooperate with Merlin, another satellite for observation of carbon dioxide which will be launched in 2020 as a result of cooperation between CNES and DLR (about Merlin You can read here).

MicroCarb along with Merlin, will be based on Myriade-Evolution satellite bus manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space. Myriade is result of cooperation between Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) and CNES and is also known as commercial Astrosat-100 bus. It was presented in 1998 as universal platform for mini research  satellites. Version used for manufacturing MicroCarb will be equipped in one deployable gallium arsenide solar array. It will be cube shaped construction (with 60 cm sized sides) based on space frame with total weight around 150 kg. Myriade bus is equipped in Transputer T805 flight control system (based on transputer equipped with 1 Gigabit memory and yielding around 5 MIPS). Downlink with speed up to 400 kbit/s is possible with utilization of two S band transceivers or X band transmitting system working with speed up to 72 Mbit/s. It was not unveiled if Airbus will utilize standard Myriade bus or it will be modified just like during development of Merlin satellite which basically using same technology has weight of 400 kg. MicroCarb will be equipped with dispersive spectrometer operating in near infrared range, for measuring levels of carbon dioxide (with level of 1 ppm) with pixel size of 5 km x 6 km.



First commercial space station – ULA and Bigelow Aerospace announced agreement for partnership

After launching BEAM onboard of Dragon spacecraft Bigelow is convinced that their concept of inflating space station is well engineered – probably ULA shares this opinion because both companies announced about cooperation for future commercial space station.

On April 11, 2016, in Colorado Springs United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace Colorado announced about their will for developing cooperation to establish in 2020 first commercial space station – Bigelow B330.

B330 will have 330 cubic meters of volume (comparing to 916 cubic meters of International Space Station), 9.45 m of length and mass around 23 t. B330 is planned as inflatable construction manufactured in technology similar to BEAM expandable module launched recently during CRS-8 and previous experimental prototypes: Genesis I and Genesis II. Companies are considering using station for variety of purposes from research laboratory with micro gravitation conditions through orbital assembling facility to space tourism. Supplies will be delivered by CRS NASA contractors, crews will arrive on Boeing CST-100 spacecraft. According to official statement of ULA and quoted there Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace:

“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS)… In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities. The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

ULA and Bigelow are also considering threating B330 as commercial expansion of ISS to provide additional space for research. With room for 6 person crew it will extend capacity of ISS for about 30%. More room and more crew members means more abilities for performing researches – it is important to use time which still remained to decommissioning of ISS as as best as possible. NASA could be interested in hiring B330 to avoid additional costs of developing own module but still keeping opportunity for additional laboratory space. After reaching the end of operational life of ISS, B330 could be detached and spend rest from its 20 years of predicted life as separate, stand-alone space station.

Bigelow B330 will be launched on atop of United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket. It will be Atlas V in 552 configuration. Rocket will be equipped with 5 m payload fairing, 5 boosters and Centaur upper stage with 2 engines. In this configuration Atlas V is able to lift up to 20 t to LEO – it was not unveiled how ULA will lift remaining 3 t of B330 to orbit. It could be explained by using new engines which were designed to replace used in Atlas RD-180. Created by Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engines with better parameters than RD-180 could solve problem along with design improvements focused on reducing mass of the B330 – it is planned to start installing AR1 in 2019, just year before first launch of B330 in 2020. At the moment both Companies are convinced that their project is future of space exploration and confirmed plans for further establishing similar station on Moon or Mars orbit.

It was not announced if B330 modules will be part of unveiled in 2005 CSS Skywalker (Commercial Space Station Skywalker). This project which start and exploitation were planned for 2015 was basically tourism oriented habitable station with limited capabilities for scientific research. Now it seems that Bigelow is more focused on renting laboratory with micro gravitation conditions then space tourism. The problem is that along with Bigelow, different space stations are planned. China and Russia will offer probably comparable solutions – question is if such there will be enough customers who would like to pay for microgravity conditions which could be also provided by returnable scientific satellites or solutions like New Shepard.

On picture above: mockup of the B330.


Kepler spaceraft problems – NASA investigates the reasons

During last contact with Kepler Space Observatory NASA engineers spotted that spacecraft remains in Emergency Mode.

Kepler telescope is deep space exploration vehicle with telescope onboard made by Ball Aerospace & Technologies. It was launched on atop of Delta II rocket on March 7, 2009, with assumed operational life at 3.5 years. Now, after 7 years of continuous service and over 120 million kilometers spacecraft seemed to work fine. During last contact performed on April 4, 2016, Kepler send data about its condition – all parameters were correct and NASA planned maneuver to change position of the Kepler towards to center of Milky Way. After six days NASA performed next communication session to send commands for starting maneuver; operators spotted that spacecraft is in the Emergency Mode and is able only to receive commands through Deep Space Network. For NASA it means that spacecraft uses more fuel than during normal flight; due the extended mission time and shrinking fuel amount remaining in tanks exiting from EM is now most important. At the moment NASA announced only that Kepler entered in Emergency Mode about 36 hours before communication attempt performed in April 7, 2016.

It is second failure of Kepler – first was linked with failure of two from four reaction wheels responsible for attitude control in 2013. It caused problems with aiming of the satellite, because without fully working attitude control, satellite is not able to perform precision maneuvers. To keep satellite operational and perform necessary maneuvers engineers from Ball Aerospace found innovative solution – they started to use solar pressure to stabilize spacecraft. To keep Kepler in stable flight with pressure of the photons, spacecraft should be always in certain angle to the Sun. Hard work of Ball Aerospace specialists brought positive results and Kepler became again fully operational. Spacecraft served well and it started its K2 mission’s micro lensing observing campaign. There was only one condition of keeping spacecraft on correct course – every few months it should perform position correction to keep designated angle to Sun. Now after entering EM it is not possible and satellite could lost its stability. At the moment NASA has not confirmed if it was discovered what the reason of Kepler issues is or when problem will be solved.


Dragon docked, CRS-8 finished with success

Today SpaceX Dragon docked securely to International Space Station Harmony module. It is third visit of the spacecraft on ISS during last two weeks.

At 11:31 GMT Dragon reached 63 m distance and started final approach to keeping point on 30 m from flying over South Africa International Space Station. Reaching keeping point was estimated for 11:40 GMT. Tim Peake (ESA) sat to console located in Cupola ISS module to operate Canadarm2 robotic arm as primary operator, with Jeff Williams (NASA) as support operator. At 11:52 GMT everything was set for go and Dragon started final approach. Punctually at 12:00 GMT Dragon started final approach to ISS from 30 m while Station flight over south east China. Dragon continued approaching with only nine minutes to orbital sunset – if it would not manage to reach capture point docking would be halted. At 12:14 GMT Dragon reached capture point (approx. 10 m away from ISS) and Tim Peake waited for final confirmation to start moving Canadarm2 to grab spacecraf. Tim Peake reported that is ready – SpaceX control center gave agreement along with flight control at 12:16 GMT. After five minutes later, according to procedure, Tim Peake decided to start moving Canadarm2 to remaining stable course Dragon. At two minutes later robotic arm reached 1 m distance from Dragon. At 12:23 first contact between arm and Dragon appeared and grapple was confirmed – spacecraft was caught while International Space Station flew over Hawaii.

Berthing of the CRS-8 Dragon was finally performed at 13:57 GMT to Earth facing port of Harmony module. From that moment to International Space Station would be docked six spacecrafts (last time such situation took place during last mission of Discovery Space Shuttle during STS-133 in February 2011): Dragon CRS-8, Cygnus OA-6, Progress-MS 63 and Progress-MS 62, Soyuz TMA-19M and Soyuz TMA-20M. It will be first time when two commercial resupply spacecrafts are berthed in same time to ISS.

Main payload of the Dragon, BEAM inflatable experimental module by Bigelow Aerospace will be extracted from Dragon unpressurized cargo section by Canadarm2 on 16th April 2016 and attached to Tranquility module, to its aft berthing port. It will be inflated to its full capacity until 26th May 2016 and seven days later first astronauts could enter the module. BEAM will remain attached to ISS for two years.