In the six decades or so of human space exploration, depending on whose definition you take, only 562 people have flown in to space. We haven’t quite reached the state of holidaying in space that science fiction once promised us even though the prospect of sub-orbital spaceflight for the exceedingly well-heeled is very close, so that cadre of astronauts remains an elite group whose entry is not for the average person. Some readers might have an opportunity to change that though, as the European Space Agency have announced a fresh round of astronaut recruitment that will open at the end of March.
Sadly for our American readers the successful applicants have to hail from ESA member states, but since that covers a swathe of European countries we’re guessing that a lot of you might have your long-held dreams of spaceflight revived by it. You can learn more at a press conference to be held on the 16th of February, and streamed via ESA Web TV. Meanwhile whoever is recruited will be likely not only to participate in missions to the ISS, but maybe also more ambitious planned missions such as those to the planned Lunar Gateway space station in Lunar orbit. If you think you’ve got the Euro version of The Right Stuff, you’ll have the 8 weeks from the end of March until the 28th of May to get your application in. Good Luck!
On November 17th, a Vega rocket lifted off from French Guiana with its payload of two Earth observation satellites. The booster, coincidentally the 17th Vega to fly, performed perfectly: the solid-propellant rocket engines that make up its first three stages burned in succession. But soon after the fourth stage of the Vega ignited its liquid-fueled RD-843 engine, it became clear that something was very wrong. While telemetry showed the engine was operating as expected, the vehicle’s trajectory and acceleration started to deviate from the expected values.
There was no dramatic moment that would have indicated to the casual observer that the booster had failed. But by the time the mission clock had hit twelve minutes, there was no denying that the vehicle wasn’t going to make its intended orbit. While the live stream hosts continued extolling the virtues of the Vega rocket and the scientific payloads it carried, the screens behind them showed that the mission was doomed.
Unfortunately, there’s little room for error when it comes to spaceflight. Despite reaching a peak altitude of roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles), the Vega’s Attitude Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) failed to maintain the velocity and heading necessary to achieve orbit. Eventually the AVUM and the two satellites it carried came crashing back down to Earth, reportedly impacting an uninhabited area not far from where the third stage was expected to fall.
Although we’ve gotten a lot better at it, getting to space remains exceptionally difficult. It’s an inescapable reality that rockets will occasionally fail and their payloads will be lost. Yet the fact that Vega has had two failures in as many years is somewhat troubling, especially since the booster has only flown 17 missions so far. A success rate of 88% isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly on the lower end of the spectrum. For comparison, boosters such as the Soyuz, Falcon 9, and Atlas have success rates of 95% or higher.
Further failures could erode customer trust in the relatively new rocket, which has only been flying since 2012 and is facing stiff competition from commercial launch providers. If Vega is to become the European workhorse that operator Arianespace hopes, figuring out what went wrong on this launch and making sure it never happens again is of the utmost importance.
In a bit of rare Australian space news, the Arnhemland Historical Society has managed to save one of the satellite trackers used during the 1960s and 1970s from the scrap heap. As the Space Race intensified during the 1950s and 1960s, every nation wanted a piece of this new technology. A number of European nations banded together in the form of ELDO, the European Launcher Development Organisation.
Australia was a partner in this program, with launches of the Europa-1 and Europa-2 rockets taking place from Woomera, South Australia. Initially the UK’s cancelled Blue Streak IRBM program provided the first stage for Europa-1, but this was later replaced with the French Diamant. France also provided the Coralie second stage in addition to the German-developed Astris third stage.
The first launch of the Europa-1 took place in 1966, with the rocket performing well, but inaccurate readings from a radar station leading to the rocket to be wrongly instructed to self-destruct. Of nine launches, four were successful, with the satellite trackers at Arnhemland providing tracking support. Ultimately, the many technical setbacks led to the demise of ELDO, and it was merged by the 1970s into what is now the European Space Agency, with its main launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
Despite the lack of success, these early days at Woomera were instrumental in getting Europe’s feet wet in the development of the Ariane rockets. Woomera’s rocketing days may also not be over yet, with NASA having announced in 2019 plans to use Woomera for launches.
Maybe one day Arnhemland will have its own space port, with the old satellite track on display to remind of those early days.
[Top photo: The ELDO satellite trackers were state-of-the-art when they stood in Gove in the 1960s. (Supplied: Arnhemland Historical Society)]
Over the past few weeks, a new season of Mars fever kicked off with launches of three interplanetary missions. And since there’s a sizable overlap between fans of spaceflight and those of electronics and 3D printing, the European Space Agency released the ExoMy rover for those who want to experience a little bit of Mars from home.
ExoMy’s smiling face and cartoonish proportions are an adaptation of ESA’s Rosalind Franklin (formerly the ExoMars) rover which, if 2020 hadn’t turned out to be 2020, would have been on its way to Mars as well. While Rosalind Franklin must wait for the next Mars launch window, we can launch ExoMy missions to our homes now. Like the real ESA rover, ExoMy has a triple bogie suspension design distinctly different from the rocker-bogie design used by NASA JPL’s rover family. Steering all six wheels rather than just four, ExoMy has maneuvering chops visible in a short Instagram video clip (also embedded after the break).
ExoMy’s quoted price of admission is in the range of 250-500€. Perusing instructions posted on GitHub, we see an electronics nervous system built around a Raspberry Pi. Its published software stack is configured for human remote control, but as it is already running ROS (Robot Operating System), it should be an easy on-ramp for ExoMars builders with the ambition of adding autonomy.
If you want to go to the next level with software defined radio (SDR), there are a lot of choices. The RTL-SDR dongles are fine, but if you get serious you’ll probably want something else. How do you choose? Well, your friends at the European Space Agency Libre Space Foundation have published a paper comparing many common options. True, they are mostly looking at how the receivers work with CubeSats, but it is still a good comparison.
The devices they examine are:
BladeRF 2.0 Micro
Ettus USRP B210
They looked at several bands of interest, but not the HF bands — not surprising considering that some of the devices can’t even operate on HF. They did examine VHF, UHF, L band, S band, and C band performance. Some of the SDRs have transmit capabilities, and for those devices, they tested the transmit function as well as receive.
At this point, most of us are painfully aware of the restrictions that COVID-19 social distancing protocols have put on our daily lives. Anyone who can is working from home, major events are canceled, non-essential businesses are closed, and travel is either strongly discouraged or prohibited outright. In particularly hard hit areas, life and commerce has nearly ground to a halt with no clear end date in sight.
Naturally, there are far reaching consequences for this shutdown beyond what’s happening on the individual level. Large scale projects are also being slowed or halted entirely, as there’s only so much you can do remotely. That’s especially true when the assembly of hardware is concerned, which has put some industries in a particularly tight spot. One sector that’s really feeling the strain is aerospace. Around the world, space agencies are finding that their best laid plans are suddenly falling apart in the face of COVID-19.
In some cases it’s a minor annoyance, requiring nothing more than some tweaks to procedures. But when the movements of the planets are concerned, a delay of weeks or months changes everything. While things are still changing too rapidly to make an exhaustive list, we already know of a few missions that are being impacted in these uncertain times.
Nuclear power is great if you want to generate a lot of electricity without releasing lots of CO2 and other harmful pollutants. However, the major bugbear of the technology has always been the problem of waste. Many of the byproducts from the operation of nuclear plants are radioactive, and remain so for thousands of years. Storing this waste in a safe and economical fashion continues to be a problem.
Alternative methods to deal with this waste stream continue to be an active area of research. So what are some of the ways this waste can be diverted or reused?
Fast Breeders Want To Close The Fuel Cycle
One of the primary forms of waste from a typical nuclear light water reactor (LWR) is the spent fuel from the fission reaction. These consist of roughly 3% waste isotopes, 1% plutonium isotopes, and 96% uranium isotopes. This waste is high in transuranic elements, which have half-lives measured in many thousands of years. These pose the biggest problems for storage, as they must be securely kept in a safe location for lengths of time far exceeding the life of any one human society.
The proposed solution to this problem is to instead use fast-neutron reactors, which “breed” non-fissile uranium-238 into plutonium-239 and plutonium-240, which can then be used as fresh fuel. Advanced designs also have the ability to process out other actinides, also using them as fuel in the fission process. These reactors have the benefit of being able to use almost all the energy content in uranium fuel, reducing fuel use by 60 to 100 times compared to conventional methods.