First Space Cookies: Cosmic Cooking Is Half-Baked

For decades, astronauts have been forced to endure space-friendly MREs and dehydrated foodstuffs, though we understand both the quality and the options have increased with time. But if we’re serious about long-term space travel, colonizing Mars, or actually having a restaurant at the end of the universe, the ability to bake and cook from raw ingredients will become necessary. This zero-gravity culinary adventure might as well start with a delicious experiment, and what better than chocolate chip cookies for the maiden voyage?

That little filtered vent lets steam out and keeps crumbs in. Image via Zero-G Kitchen

The vessel in question is the Zero-G Oven, built in a collaboration between Zero-G Kitchen and Nanoracks, a Texas-based company that provides commercial access to space. In November 2019, Nanoracks sent the Zero-G oven aloft, where it waited a few weeks for the bake-off to kick off. Five pre-formed cookie dough patties had arrived a few weeks earlier, each one sealed inside its own silicone baking pouch.

The Zero-G Oven is essentially a rack-mounted cylindrical toaster oven. It maxes out at 325 °F (163 °C), which is enough heat for Earth cookies if you can wait fifteen minutes or so. But due to factors we haven’t figured out yet, the ISS cookies took far longer to bake.

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Lego Space Station Designed By Fan

It is no secret that most people like to play with Lego, but some people really like it to an extreme degree. Lego’s Idea platform lets people submit designs for review and also lets users vote on these designs. If accepted, the company works with the designer to put a kit in production and they share in the profits. [Christophe Ruge] submitted his design for the International Space Station and three years later, you can buy it on the Lego website.

The kit has 864 parts and the finished model is 12″ x 19″ x 7″ — probably will take longer than a coffee break to finish it. The model even includes the two rotating Solar Alpha Rotary Joints that allow the solar panels to align with the sun. You can see [Scott] building his on a recorded live stream below if you have 3 hours to kill.

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Boeing’s Starliner Fails To Reach Space Station

After a decade in development, the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” lifted off from pad SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station a little before dawn this morning on its first ever flight. Officially referred to as the Boeing Orbital Flight Test (Boe-OFT), this uncrewed mission was intended to verify the spacecraft’s ability to navigate in orbit and safely return to Earth. It was also planned to be a rehearsal of the autonomous rendezvous and docking procedures that will ultimately be used to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station; a capability NASA has lacked since the 2011 retirement of the Space Shuttle.

Liftoff at 6:36 AM Eastern

Unfortunately, some of those goals are now unobtainable. Due to a failure that occurred just 30 minutes into the flight, the CST-100 is now unable to reach the ISS. While the craft remains fully functional and in a stable orbit, Boeing and NASA have agreed that under the circumstances the planned eight day mission should be cut short. While there’s still some hope that the CST-100 will have the opportunity to demonstrate its orbital maneuverability during the now truncated flight, the primary focus has switched to the deorbit and landing procedures which have tentatively been moved up to the morning of December 22nd.

While official statements from all involved parties have remained predictably positive, the situation is a crushing blow to both Boeing and NASA. Just days after announcing that production of their troubled 737 MAX airliner would be suspended, the last thing that Boeing needed right now was another high-profile failure. For NASA, it’s yet another in a long line of setbacks that have made some question if private industry is really up to the task of ferrying humans to space. This isn’t the first time a CST-100 has faltered during a test, and back in August, a SpaceX Crew Dragon was obliterated while its advanced launch escape system was being evaluated.

We likely won’t have all the answers until the Starliner touches down at the White Sands Missile Range and Boeing engineers can get aboard, but ground controllers have already started piecing together an idea of what happened during those first critical moments of the flight. The big question now is, will NASA require Boeing to perform a second Orbital Flight Test before certifying the CST-100 to carry a human crew?

Let’s take a look at what happened during this morning’s launch.

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Globe Lamp Tracks The ISS For You

Assuming you don’t work at a major space agency, you probably don’t really need to know the exact location of the International Space Station at all times. If you’d like to know just because it’s cool, this lamp is for you.

The lamp is driven by a Wemos D1, which pulls in data on the space station’s current location from Open Notify. A stepper motor and servo motor serve to control a pan-tilt assembly, aiming a 405nm laser at the inside of a 3D printed globe to indicate the station’s position above Earth. As a nice touch, there’s also a ring of NeoPixel LEDs that are controlled to glow on the sunny side of the planet, too.

This is a fun project that makes it easy to know when to bust out your ham gear to chat to the team overhead, and would also make a great conversation starter. It’s not the first hardware ISS monitor we’ve seen, either! Video after the break.

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Russian Robot To Visit Space Station

The Russians were the first to send a dog into space, the first to send a man, and the first to send a woman. However, NASA sent the first humanoid robot to the International Space Station. The Russians, though, want to send FEDOR and proclaim that while Robonaut flew as cargo, a FEDOR model — Skybot F-850 — will fly the upcoming MS-14 supply mission as crew.

Defining the term robot can be tricky, with some thinking a proper robot needs to be autonomous and others seeing robotics under human control as enough. The Russian FEDOR robot is — we think — primarily a telepresence device, but it remains an impressive technical achievement. The press release claims that it can balance itself and do other autonomous actions, but it appears that to do anything tricky probably requires an operator. You can see the robot in ground tests at about the one minute mark in the video below.

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It’s NICER In Orbit

Given the sheer volume of science going on as the International Space Station circles above our heads every 90 minutes or so, it would be hard for any one experiment to stand out. ISS expeditions conduct experiments on everything from space medicine to astrophysics and beyond, and the instruments needed to do the science have been slowly accreting over the years. There’s so much stuff up there that almost everywhere you turn there’s a box or pallet stuck down with hook-and-loop fasteners or bolted to some bulkhead, each one of them doing something interesting.

The science on the ISS isn’t contained completely within the hull, of course. The outside of the station fairly bristles with science, with packages nestled in among the solar panels and other infrastructure needed to run the spacecraft. Peering off into space and swiveling around to track targets is an instrument with the friendly name NICER, for “Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer.” What it does and how it does it is interesting stuff, and what it’s learning about the mysteries of neutron stars could end up having practical uses as humanity pushes out into the solar system and beyond.

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See Starlink’s “Space Train” Before It Leaves The Station

Have you looked up into the night sky recently and seen a bizarre line of luminous dots? Have you noticed an uptick in the number of UFO reports mentioned in the news and social media? If so, you may have already been touched by what many have come to affectionately call Elon Musk’s “Space Train”: a line of tightly grouped Starlink satellites that are making their way around the globe.

Some have wondered what’s so unique about the Starlink satellites that allows them to be visible from the ground by the naked eye, but that’s actually nothing new. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, for both the observer and the spacecraft in question. The trick is having the object in space catch the light from the Sun when it has, from the observer’s point of view, already set. It’s essentially the same reason the Moon shines at night, but on a far smaller scale.

The ISS as it travels through Earth’s night and day

The phenomena is known as “satellite flare”, and chasing them is a favorite pastime of avid sky watchers. If you know when and where to look on a clear night, you can easily spot the International Space Station as it zips across the sky thanks to this principle. NASA even offers a service which uses email or SMS to tell you when the ISS should be visible from your location.

What makes the Starlink satellites unique isn’t that we can see them from the ground, but that there’s so many of them flying in a straight line. The initial launch released 60 satellites in a far tighter formation than we’ve ever seen before; Elon even warned that collisions between the individual Starlink satellites wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The cumulative effect of these close proximity satellite flares is a bit startling, and understandably has people concerned about what the night sky might look like when all 12,000 Starlink satellites are in orbit.

The good news is, the effect is only temporary. As the satellites spread out and begin individual maneuvers, that long line in the sky will fade away. But before Elon’s “Space Train” departs for good, let’s look at how it was created, and how you can still catch a glimpse of this unique phenomena.

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