Litter-windrow detections in the Mediterranean Sea. (Credit: ESA)

Mapping Litter In The Oceans From Space With Existing Satellites

Aerial drone image of a litter windrow in Bay of Biscay, Spain. Windrow width: 1-2 meters. (Credit: ESA)
Aerial drone image of a litter windrow in Bay of Biscay, Spain. Windrow width: 1-2 meters. (Credit: ESA)

Recently ESA published the results of a proof-of-concept study into monitoring marine litter using existing satellites, with promising results for the Mediterranean study area. For the study, six years of historical data from the Sentinel-2 satellite multispectral imaging  cameras were used, involving 300,000 images with a resolution of 10 meters. The focus was on litter windrows as common collections of litter like plastic, wood and other types of marine debris that float on the surface, forming clearly visible lines that can be meters wide and many times as long.

These were processed as explained in the open access paper in Nature Communications by [Andrés Cózar] and colleagues. As marine litter (ML) tends to be overwhelmingly composed of plastic, this eases the detection, as any ML that’s visible from space can generally be assumed to be primarily plastic litter. This was combined with the spectral profile of common plastics, so that other types of floating materials (algae, driftwood, seafoam, etc.) could be filtered out, leaving just the litter.

This revealed many of these short-lived litter windrows, with spot confirmation from ships in the area. Some of the windrows were many kilometers in length, with an average of around 1 km.

Although just a PoC, it nevertheless shows that monitoring such plastic debris from space is quite doable, even without dedicated satellites. As every day tons more plastics make their way into the oceans, this provides us with the means to at least keep track of the scope of the problem. Even if resolving it and the associated microplastics problem is still a far-off dream.

Astroscale’s ADRAS-J Satellite Takes Up-Close Photo Of Discarded Rocket Stage

Although there is a lot of space in Earth orbit, there are also some seriously big man-made objects in those orbits, some of which have been there for decades. As part of efforts to remove at least some of this debris from orbit, Astroscale’s ADRAS-J (“Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan”) satellite has been partaking in JAXA’s Commercial Removal of Space Debris Demonstration (CRD2). After ADRAS-J was launched by a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on February 18, it’s been moving closer to its target, with June 14th seeing an approach by roughly 50 meters, allowing for an unprecedented photo to be made of the H-2A stage in orbit. This upper stage of a Japanese H-2A rocket originally launched the GOSAT Earth observation satellite into orbit back in 2009.

The challenges with this kind of approach is that the orbital debris does not actively broadcast its location, ergo it requires a combination of on-ground and on-satellite tracking to match the orbital trajectory for a safe approach. Here ADRAS-J uses what is called Model Matching Navigation (MNM), which uses known visual information to compare it with captured images, to use these to estimate the relative distance to the target.

Although the goal of ADRAS-J is only to study the target from as closely as possible, the next phase in the CRD2 program would involve actively deorbiting this upper stage, with phase start projected to commence in 2026.

Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.

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The Solar System Is Weirder Than You Think

When I was a kid, the solar system was simple. There were nine planets and they all orbited in more-or-less circles around the sun. This same sun-and-a-handful-of-planets scheme repeated itself again and again throughout our galaxy, and these galaxies make up the universe. It’s a great story that’s easy to wrap your mind around, and of course it’s a great first approximation, except maybe that “nine planets” thing, which was just a fluke that we’ll examine shortly.

What’s happened since, however, is that telescopes have gotten significantly better, and many more bodies of all sorts have been discovered in the solar system which is awesome. But as a casual astronomy observer, I’ve given up hope of holding on to a simple mental model. The solar system is just too weird.

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Voyager 1 Once Again Returning Science Data From All Four Instruments

As humanity’s furthest reach into the Universe so far, the two Voyager spacecraft’s well-being is of utmost importance to many. Although we know that there will be an end to any science mission, the recent near-death experience by Voyager 1 was a shocking event for many. Now it seems that things may have more or less returned to normal, with all four remaining scientific instruments now back online and returning information.

Since the completion of Voyager 1’s primary mission over 43 years ago, five of its instruments (including the cameras) were disabled to cope with its diminishing power reserves, with two more instruments failing. This left the current magnetometer (MAG), charged particle (LECP) and cosmic ray (CRS) instruments, as well as the plasma wave subsystem (PWS). These are now all back in operation based on the returned science data after the Voyager team confirmed previously that they were receiving engineering data again.

With Voyager 1 now mostly back to normal, some housekeeping is necessary: resynchronizing the onboard time, as well as maintenance on the digital tape recorder. This will ensure that this venerable spacecraft will be all ready for its 47th anniversary this fall.

Thanks to [Mark Stevens] for the tip.

Single-Stage-to-Orbit: The Launch Technology We Wish Was Real

Reaching orbit around Earth is an incredibly difficult feat. It’s a common misconception that getting into orbit just involves getting very high above the ground — the real trick is going sideways very, very fast. Thus far, the most viable way we’ve found to do this is with big, complicated multi-stage rockets that shed bits of themselves as they roar out of the atmosphere.

Single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launch vehicles represent a revolutionary step in space travel. They promise a simpler, more cost-effective way to reach orbit compared to traditional multi-stage rockets. Today, we’ll explore the incredible potential offered by SSTO vehicles, and why building a practical example is all but impossible with our current technology.

A Balancing Act

The SSTO concept doesn’t describe any one single spacecraft design. Instead, it refers to any spacecraft that’s capable of achieving orbit using a single, unified propulsion system and without jettisoning any part of the vehicle.

The Saturn V shed multiple stages on its way up to orbit. That way, less fuel was needed to propel the final stage up to orbital velocity. Credit: NASA

Today’s orbital rockets shed stages as they expend fuel. There’s one major reason for this, and it’s referred to as the tyranny of the rocket equation. Fundamentally, a spacecraft needs to reach a certain velocity to attain orbit. Reaching that velocity from zero — i.e. when the rocket is sitting on the launchpad — requires a change in velocity, or delta-V. The rocket equation can be used to figure out how much fuel is required for a certain delta-V, and thus a desired orbit.

The problem is that the mass of fuel required scales exponentially with delta-V. If you want to go faster, you need more fuel. But then you need even more fuel again to carry the weight of that fuel, and so on. Plus, all that fuel needs a tank and structure to hold it, which makes things more difficult again.

Work out the maths of a potential SSTO design, and the required fuel to reach orbit ends up taking up almost all of the launch vehicle’s weight. There’s precious mass left over for the vehicle’s own structure, let alone any useful payload. This all comes down to the “mass fraction” of the rocket. A SSTO powered by even our most efficient chemical rocket engines would require that the vast majority of its mass be dedicated to propellants, with its structure and payload being tiny in comparison. Much of that is due to Earth’s nature. Our planet has a strong gravitational pull, and the minimum orbital velocity is quite high at about 7.4 kilometers per second or so.

Stage Fright

Historically, we’ve cheated the rocket equation through smart engineering. The trick with staged rockets is simple. They shed structure as the fuel burns away. There’s no need to keep hauling empty fuel tanks into orbit. By dropping empty tanks during flight, the remaining fuel on the rocket has to accelerate a smaller mass, and thus less fuel is required to get the final rocket and payload into its intended orbit.

The Space Shuttle sheds its boosters and external fuel tank on its way up to orbit, too. Credit: NASA

So far, staged rockets have been the only way for humanity to reach orbit. Saturn V had five stages, more modern rockets tend to have two or three. Even the Space Shuttle was a staged design: it shed its two booster rockets when they were empty, and did the same with its external liquid fuel tank.

But while staged launch vehicles can get the job done, it’s a wasteful way to fly. Imagine if every commercial flight required you to throw away three quarters of the airplane. While we’re learning to reuse discarded parts of orbital rockets, it’s still a difficult and costly exercise.

The core benefit of a SSTO launch vehicle would be its efficiency. By eliminating the need to discard stages during ascent, SSTO vehicles would reduce launch costs, streamline operations, and potentially increase the frequency of space missions.

Pushing the Envelope

It’s currently believed that building a SSTO vehicle using conventional chemical rocket technology is marginally possible. You’d need efficient rocket engines burning the right fuel, and a light rocket with almost no payload, but theoretically it could be done.

Ideally, though, you’d want a single-stage launch vehicle that could actually reach orbit with some useful payload. Be that a satellite, human astronauts, or some kind of science package. To date there have been several projects and proposals for SSTO launch vehicles, none of which have succeeded so far.

Lockheed explored a spaceplane concept called VentureStar, but it never came to fruition. Credit: NASA

One notable design was the proposed Skylon spacecraft from British company Reaction Engines Limited. Skylon was intended to operate as a reusable spaceplane fueled by hydrogen. It would take off from a runway, using wings to generate lift to help it to ascend to 85,000 feet. This improves fuel efficiency versus just pointing the launch vehicle straight up and fighting gravity with pure thrust alone. Plus, it would burn oxygen from the atmosphere on its way to that altitude, negating the need to carry heavy supplies of oxygen onboard.

Once at the appropriate altitude, it would switch to internal liquid oxygen tanks for the final acceleration phase up to orbital velocity. The design stretches back decades, to the earlier British HOTOL spaceplane project. Work continues on the proposed SABRE engine (Syngergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) that would theoretically propel Skylon, though no concrete plans to build the spaceplane itself exist.

The hope was that efficient aerospike rocket engines would let the VentureStar reach orbit in a single stage.

Lockheed Martin also had the VentureStar spaceplane concept, which used an innovative “aerospike” rocket engine that maintained excellent efficiency across a wide altitude range. The company even built a scaled-down test craft called the X-33 to explore the ideas behind it. However, the program saw its funding slashed in the early 2000s, and development was halted.

McDonnell Douglas also had a crack at the idea in the early 1990s. The DC-X, also known as the Delta Clipper, was a prototype vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. At just 12 meters high and 4.1 meters in diameter, it was a one-third scale prototype for exploring SSTO-related technologies

It would take off vertically like a traditional rocket, and return to Earth nose-first before landing on its tail. The hope was that the combination of single-stage operation and this mission profile would provide extremely quick turnaround times for repeat launches, which was seen as a boon for potential military applications. While its technologies showed some promise, the project was eventually discontinued when a test vehicle caught fire after NASA took over the project.

McDonnell Douglas explored SSTO technologies with the Delta Clipper. Credit: Public domain

Ultimately, a viable SSTO launch vehicle that can carry a payload will likely be very different from the rockets we use today. Relying on wings to generate lift could help save fuel, and relying on air in the atmosphere would slash the weight of oxidizer that would have to be carried onboard.

However, it’s not as simple as just penning a spaceplane with an air-breathing engine and calling it done. No air breathing engine that exists can reach orbital velocity, so such a craft would need an additional rocket engine too, adding weight. Plus, it’s worth noting a reusable launch vehicle would also still require plenty of heat shielding to survive reentry. One could potentially build a non-reusable single-stage to orbit vehicle that simply stays in space, of course, but that would negate many of the tantalizing benefits of the whole concept.

Single-stage-to-orbit vehicles hold the promise of transforming how we access space by simplifying the architecture of launch vehicles and potentially reducing costs. While there are formidable technical hurdles to overcome, the ongoing advances in aerospace technology provide hope that SSTO could become a practical reality in the future. As technology marches forward in materials, rocketry, and aerospace engineering in general, the dream of a single-stage path to orbit remains a tantalizing future goal.


Featured Image: Skylon Concept Art, ESA/Reaction Engines Ltd

The New Extremely Large Telescopes And The US’ Waning Influence In Astronomy

For many decades, the USA has been at the forefront of astronomy, whether with ground-based telescopes or space-based observatories like Hubble and the JWST. Yet this is now at risk as US astronomers are forced to choose between funding either the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) or the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) as part of the US Extremely Large Telescope (USELT) program. This rightfully has the presidents of Carnegie Science and Caltech – [Eric D. Isaacs] and [Thomas F. Rosenbaum] respectively – upset, with their opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times going over all the reasons why this funding cut is a terrible idea.

The slow death of US astronomy is perhaps best exemplified by the slow death and eventual collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope. Originally constructed as a Cold War era ICBM detector, it found grateful use by radio astronomers, but saw constant budget cuts and decommissioning threats. After Arecibo’s collapse, it’s now China with its FAST telescope that has mostly taken the limelight. In the case of optical telescopes, the EU’s own ELT is expected to be online in 2028, sited close to the GMT in the Atacama desert. The TMT would be sited in Hawai’i.

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IRCB S73-7 Satellite Found After Going Untracked For 25 Years

When the United States launched the KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite into orbit atop a Titan IIID rocket in 1974, it brought a calibration target along for the ride: the Infra-Red Calibration Balloon (IRCB) S73-7. This 66 cm (26 inch) diameter inflatable satellite was ejected by the KH-9, but failed to inflate into its intended configuration and became yet another piece of space junk. Initially it was being tracked in the 1970s, but vanished until briefly reappearing in the 1990s. Now it’s popped up again, twenty-five years later.

As noted by [Jonathan McDowell] who tripped over S73-7 in recent debris tracking data, it’s quite possible that it had been tracked before, but hidden in the noise as it is not an easy target to track. Since it’s not a big metallic object with a large radar cross-section, it’s among the more difficult signals to reliably pick out of the noise. As can be seen in [Jonathan]’s debris tracking table, this is hardly a unique situation, with many lost (XO) entries. This always raises the exciting question of whether a piece of debris has had its orbit decayed to where it burned up, ended up colliding with other debris/working satellite or simply has gone dark.

For now we know where S73-7 is, and as long as its orbit remains stable we can predict where it’ll be, but it highlights the difficulty of keeping track of the around 20,000 objects in Earth orbit, with disastrous consequences if we get it wrong.