ISS Artificial Gravity Study Shows Promise For Long Duration Spaceflight

The International Space Station is humanity’s most expensive gym membership.

Since the earliest days of human spaceflight, it’s been understood that longer trips away from Earth’s gravity can have a detrimental effect on an astronaut’s body. Floating weightless invariably leads to significantly reduced muscle mass in the same way that a patient’s muscles can atrophy if they spend too much time laying in bed. With no gravity to constantly fight against, an astronauts legs, back, and neck muscles will weaken from disuse in as little as a week. While this may not pose an immediate problem during spaceflight, astronauts landing back on Earth in this physically diminished state are at a higher risk of injury.

Luckily this problem can be largely mitigated with rigorous exercise, and any orbiting vessel spacious enough to hold human occupants for weeks or months will by necessity have enough internal volume to outfit it with basic exercise equipment such as a treadmill or a resistance machine. In practice, every space station since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 1 in 1971 has featured some way for its occupants to workout while in orbit. It’s no replacement for being on Earth, as astronauts still return home weaker than when they left, but it’s proven to be the most practical approach to combating the debilitating aspects of long duration spaceflight.

Early NASA concept for creating artificial gravity.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with this: every hour spent exercising in space is an hour that could be better spent doing research or performing maintenance on the spacecraft. Given the incredible cost of not just putting a human into orbit, but keeping them there long-term, time is very literally money. Which brings us back to my original point: astronauts spending two or more hours each day on the International Space Station’s various pieces of exercise equipment just to stave off muscle loss make it the world’s most expensive gym membership.

The ideal solution, it’s been argued, is to design future spacecraft with the ability to impart some degree of artificial gravity on its passengers through centripetal force. The technique is simple enough: just rotate the craft along its axis and the crew will “stick” to the inside of the hull. Unfortunately, simulating Earth-like gravity in this way would require the vessel to either be far larger than anything humanity has ever launched into space, or rotate at a dangerously high speed. That’s a lot of risk to take on for what’s ultimately just a theory.

But a recent paper from the University of Tsukuba in Japan may represent the first real steps towards the development of practical artificial gravity systems aboard crewed spacecraft. While their study focused on mice rather than humans, the results should go a long way to codifying what until now was largely the stuff of science fiction.

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Crew Dragon’s Short Hop Begins The Era Of Valet Parking At The ISS

They weren’t scheduled to return to Earth until April 28th at the earliest, so why did NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, suit up and climb aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience on April 5th? Because a previously untested maneuver meant that after they closed the hatch between their spacecraft and the International Space Station, there was a chance they weren’t going to be coming back.

On paper, moving a capsule between docking ports seems simple enough. All Resilience had to do was undock from the International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) located on the front of the Harmony module, itself attached to the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 (PMA-2) that was once the orbital parking spot for the Space Shuttle, and move over to the PMA-3/IDA-3 on top of Harmony. It was a short trip through open space, and when the crew exited their craft and reentered the Station at the end of it, they’d only be a few meters from where they started out approximately 45 minutes prior.

The maneuver was designed to be performed autonomously, so technically the crew didn’t need to be on Resilience when it switched docking ports. But allowing the astronauts to stay aboard the station while their only ride home undocked and flew away without them was a risk NASA wasn’t willing to take.

What if the vehicle had some issue that prevented it from returning to the ISS? A relocation of this type had never been attempted by an American spacecraft before, much less a commercial one like the Crew Dragon. So while the chances of such a mishap were slim, the crew still treated this short flight as if it could be their last day in space. Should the need arise, all of the necessary checks and preparations had been made so that the vehicle could safely bring its occupants back to Earth.

Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary. The autonomous relocation of Crew Dragon Resilience went off without a hitch, and SpaceX got to add yet another “first” to their ever growing list of accomplishments in space. But this first relocation of an American spacecraft at the ISS certainly won’t be the last, as the comings and goings of commercial spacecraft will only get more complex in the future.

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Spacing Out: StarShip Explodes (Again), Passenger Space Flight, Space Bugs, Astronaut Bone, And Martian Water

This time I promise I only have a couple of stories from Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch ended in another explosion, proving that space hardware remains hard to get right. We’ll keep watching as they keep launching, and it can’t be long until they’ve ironed out all the problems. Meanwhile there’s brighter news from the company’s Crew Dragon, a modified version of the capsule with the forward docking ring replaced by a transparent dome is planned for launch in September with the company’s first flight carrying civilian passengers. It’s doubtless unwelcome news for Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital passenger flights are edging closer to reality with the unveiling of their first SpaceShip III craft. Finally, a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up on re-entry over the northwestern USA, giving observers on the ground a spactacular show.

Spectacular view of the Falcon 9 debris. Via Lu Jerz

Meanwhile up there in orbit there have been found on the ISS some strains of bacteria previously unknown to scientists on Earth, but it’s not yet time to panic about Mutant Bugs From Space. It seems these bacteria are of a type that is essential in the growing of plants, so it’s likely they originally hitched a ride up with one of the several plant-growing experiments that have taken place over the station’s lifetime. Staying on the ISS, astronauts visiting the station have been at the centre of a recently published study looking at loss of bone density over long periods in space. The bone experts found that bone density could still be lost despite the astronauts’ in-flight exercise programs, and concluded that exercise regimes pre-flight should be taken into account for future in-orbit exercise planning.

Further away from Earth, the ESA Mars Express satellite has been used for a multi-year study of water loss to space from the Martian atmosphere. The ESA scientists identified the seasonal mechanism that leads to the planet’s upper atmosphere having an excess of water and in particular the effect of the periodic planet-wide dust storms on accelerating water loss, but failed to account for the water that they estimate Mars must have lost over its history. From a study of water-created surface features they can estimate how much liquid the planet once had, yet the atmospheric losses fail to account for it all. Has it disappeared underground? More studies are required before we’ll have an answer.

The exciting news over the coming days will no doubt be the Ingenuity Martian helicopter, which we have seen slowly unfolding itself prior to unloading from the belly of the Perseverence rover. If all goes according to plan the little craft will be set down before the rover trundles off to a safe distance, and the historic flight will take place on April 8th. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, and no doubt you will be, too.

Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020

If development platforms were people, Google would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Android Things, Google’s attempt at an OS for IoT devices, will officially start shutting down on January 5, 2021, and the plug will be pulled for good a year later. Android Things, which was basically a stripped-down version of the popular phone operating system, had promise, especially considering that Google was pitching it as a secure alternative in the IoT space, where security is often an afterthought. We haven’t exactly seen a lot of projects using Android Things, so the loss is probably not huge, but the list of projects snuffed by Google and the number of developers and users left high and dry by these changes continues to grow. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020”

Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays

Outer space is not exactly a friendly environment, which is why we go through great lengths before we boost people up there. Once you get a few hundred kilometers away from our beloved rocky planet things get uncomfortable due to the lack of oxygen, extreme cold, and high doses of radiation.

Especially the latter poses a great challenge for long-term space travel, and so people are working on various concepts to protect astronauts’ DNA from being smashed by cosmic rays. This has become ever more salient as NASA contemplates future manned missions to the Moon and Mars. So let’s learn more about the dangers posed by galactic cosmic rays and solar flares. Continue reading “Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays”

Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

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Orbital Tracking On The NES

It’s easy to dismiss the original Nintendo Entertainment System as just, well, an entertainment system. But in reality the 6502 based console wasn’t so far removed from early home computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64, and Nintendo even briefly flirted with creating software and accessories geared towards general purpose computing. Though in the end, Mario and friends obviously won out.

Still, we’re willing to bet that nobody at Nintendo ever imagined their plucky little game system would one day be used to track the course of a space station in low Earth orbit. But that’s precisely what [Vi Grey] has done with his latest project, which is part of his overall effort to demonstrate the unexpected capabilities of the iconic NES. While you’ll need a bit of extra hardware to run the program on a real console, there’s no fundamental trickery that would have kept some developer from doing this in 1985 if they’d wanted to.

Raspberry Pi Zero and TAStm32

If you want to see your own 8-bit view of the International Space Station, the easiest way is with an emulator. In that case, [Vi] explains how you can load up his Lua script in Mesen or FCEUX to provide the ROM with the necessary tracking data from the Internet.

To run it on a real NES you’ll not only need some type of flash cart to get the ROM loaded, but also a TAStm32 board that’s used for tool-assisted speedruns. This allows the computer to essentially “type” the orbital data into the NES by emulating rapid controller button presses. That might seem like a tall order, but it’s important to note that neither device requires you to modify the original console; the code itself runs on a 100% stock NES.

If tracking spacecraft isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d be more interested in the some of the work [Vi] has previously done on the NES. We’re particularly fond of his polyglot ROM that is a ZIP file of its own source code.

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