As ISS Enters Its Final Years, Politics Take Center Stage

There was a time when the idea of an international space station would have been seen as little more than fantasy. After all, the human spaceflight programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were started largely as a Cold War race to see which country would be the first to weaponize low Earth orbit and secure what military strategists believed would be the ultimate high ground. Those early rockets, not so far removed from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), were fueled as much by competition as they were kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Space Shuttle docked to Mir space station in 1995.
Atlantis docked to Mir in 1995.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. The Soviet Almaz space stations might have carried a 23 mm cannon adapted from tail-gun of the Tu-22 bomber to ward off any American vehicles that got too close, but the weapon was never fired in anger. Eventually, the two countries even saw the advantage of working together. In 1975, a joint mission saw the final Apollo capsule dock with a Soyuz by way of a special adapter designed to make up for the dissimilar docking hardware used on the two spacecraft.

Relations further improved following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, with America’s Space Shuttle making nine trips to the Russian Mir space station between 1995 and 1997. A new era of cooperation had begun between the world’s preeminent space-fairing countries, and with the engineering lessons learned during the Shuttle-Mir program, engineers from both space agencies began laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the International Space Station.

Unfortunately after more than twenty years of continuous US and Russian occupation of the ISS, it seems like the cracks are finally starting to form in this tentative scientific alliance. With accusations flying over who should take the blame for a series of serious mishaps aboard the orbiting laboratory, the outlook for future international collaboration in Earth orbit and beyond hasn’t been this poor since the height of the Cold War.

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Sand Hack Boosts Power On InSight Mars Lander

We love that part in Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers have to fit a square carbon dioxide filter in a round hole. We love basically every scene of The Martian where Mark Watney hacks together any piece of hardware he can get his hands on to survive on a hostile planet. What we love even more is watching actual NASA engineers trying out a hack and ordering the InSight lander to scoop sand on itself to increase the power from its solar panels.

InSight, which recently had its two-year mission to study the interior geology of Mars extended, has been suffering from a buildup of dust on its solar panels. This dust is only adding on to the expected power loss which occurs as the red planet approaches aphelion — the maximum distance from the Sun in its orbit. Attempts to shake the panels clear by pulsing their deployment motors were unsuccessful. Other solar-powered missions have experienced a cleaning effect from the Martian winds; however, despite seeing plenty of gusts, InSight has not seen any significant improvement.

Counterintuitively, operators instructed the lander to slowly trickle more dust and sand from its scoop close to (not on top of) one of the solar panels. As the wind blew, larger particles were carried by the breeze across the panels and bounced off the surface, carrying away some accumulated dust. While that may sound like a minuscule effect, the experiment resulted in about 30 extra watt-hours per Sol. Margins are still thin, and science instruments will still need to be disabled to conserve power. But this boost alone was enough to delay the powerdown for a few weeks.

There are so many exciting missions operating on Mars right now. Though, it’s also fun to take a look back at some of the earliest probes. And we’re always amazed at the resources NASA makes available for us to have some DIY fun.

NASA’s Lucy Stretches Its Wings Ahead Of Trojan Trek

The good news about using solar power to explore space is there are no clouds to block your sunlight. Some dust and debris, yes, but nowhere near what we have to deal with on planets. The bad news is, as you wander further and further out in the solar system, your panels capture less and less of the sunlight you need for power. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will be dependent on every square inch, so we’re happy to hear technicians have successfully tested its solar panel deployment in preparation for an October 2021 launch.

An animation of Trojan asteroids and inner planets in orbit around the Sun.
Trojan asteroids (in green) orbit the Sun ahead of and behind Jupiter.

Lucy’s 12-year mission is to examine one Main Belt asteroid and seven so-called Trojans, which are asteroids shepherded around the Sun in two clusters at Lagrange points just ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit. The convoluted orbital path required for all those visits will sling the spacecraft farther from the sun than any solar-powered space mission has gone before. To make up for the subsequent loss of watts per area, the designers have done their best to maximize the area. Though the panels fold up to a package only 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick, they open up to an enormous diameter of almost 24 feet (7.3 meters); which is enough to provide the roughly 500 watts required at literally astronomical distances from their power source.

Near-Earth asteroids are exciting targets for exploration partly because of the hazards they pose to our planet. Trojan asteroids, thought to be primordial remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets, pose no such danger to us but may hold insights about the early formation of our solar system. We’re already eagerly anticipating the return of OSIRIS-REx’s sample, and Hayabusa2 continues its mission after so many firsts. An extended tour of these farther-off objects will keep us watching for years to come. Check out the video embedded below for Lucy’s mission overview.

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An Out-Of-This-World Opportunity; Become An ESA Astronaut

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!

Mimicking Exoplanet Exploration At Home

Mankind will always wonder whether we’re alone in the universe. What is out there? Sure, these past weeks we’ve been increasingly wondering the same about our own, direct proximity, but that’s a different story. Up until two years ago, we had the Kepler space telescope aiding us in our quest for answers by exploring exoplanets within our galaxy. [poblocki1982], who’s been fascinated by space since childhood times, and has recently discovered 3D printing as his new thing, figured there is nothing better than finding a way to combine your hobbies, and built a simplified model version simulating the telescope’s main concept.

The general idea is to detect the slight variation of a star’s brightness when one of its planets passes by it, and use that variation to analyze each planet’s characteristics. He achieves this with an LDR connected to an Arduino, allowing both live reading and logging the data on an SD card. Unfortunately, rocket science isn’t on his list of hobbies yet, so [poblocki1982] has to bring outer space to his home. Using a DC motor to rotate two “planets” of different size, rotation speed, and distance around their “star”, he has the perfect model planetary system that can easily double as a decorative lamp.

Obviously, this isn’t meant to detect actual planets as the real Kepler space telescope did, but to demonstrate the general concept of it, and as such makes this a nice little science experiment. For a more pragmatic use of our own Solar System, [poblocki1982] has recently built this self-calibrating sundial. And if you like rotating models of planets, check out some previous projects on that.

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NASA’s Plan For Sustained Lunar Exploration

The Apollo program proved that humans could land on the Moon and do useful work, but due to logistical and technical limitations, individual missions were kept short. For the $28 billion ($283 billion adjusted) spent on the entire program, astronauts only clocked in around 16 days total on the lunar surface. For comparison, the International Space Station has cost an estimated $150 billion to build, and has remained continuously occupied since November 2000. Apollo was an incredible technical achievement, but not a particularly cost-effective way to explore our nearest celestial neighbor.

Leveraging lessons learned from the Apollo program, modern technology, and cooperation with international and commercial partners, NASA has recently published their plans to establish a sustained presence on the Moon within the next decade. The Artemis program, named for the twin sister of Apollo, won’t just be a series of one-off missions. Fully realized, it would consist not only of a permanent outpost where astronauts will work and live on the surface of the Moon for months at a time, but a space station in lunar orbit that provides logistical support and offers a proving ground for the deep-space technologies that will eventually be required for a human mission to Mars.

It’s an ambitious program on a short timeline, but NASA believes it reflects the incredible technological strides that have been made since humans last left the relative safety of low Earth orbit. Operating the International Space Station for 20 years has given the countries involved practical experience in assembling and maintaining a large orbital complex, and decades of robotic missions have honed the technology required for precision powered landings. By combining all of the knowledge gained since the end of Apollo, the Artemis program hopes to finally establish a continuous human presence on and around the Moon.

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Off-World Cement Tested For The First Time

If the current Administration of the United States has their way, humans will return to the surface of the Moon far sooner than many had expected. But even if NASA can’t meet the aggressive timeline they’ve been given by the White House, it seems inevitable that there will be fresh boot prints on the lunar surface within the coming decades. Between commercial operators and international competition, we’re seeing the dawn of a New Space Race, with the ultimate goal being the long-term habitation of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Schmitt's dusty suit while retrieving samples from the Moon
An Apollo astronaut covered in lunar dust

But even with modern technology, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be cheap. While commercial companies such as SpaceX have significantly reduced the cost of delivering payloads to the Moon, we’ll still need every advantage to ensure the economical viability of a lunar outpost. One approach is in situ resource utilization, where instead of transporting everything from Earth, locally sourced materials are used wherever possible. This technique would not only be useful on the Moon, but many believe it will be absolutely necessary if we’re to have any chance of sending a human mission to Mars.

One of the most interesting applications of this concept is the creation of a building material from the lunar regolith. Roughly analogous to soil here on Earth, regolith is a powdery substance made up of grains of rock and micrometeoroid fragments, and contains silicon, calcium, and iron. Mixed with water, or in some proposals sulfur, it’s believed the resulting concrete-like material could be used in much the same way it is here on Earth. Building dwellings in-place with this “lunarcrete” would be faster, cheaper, and easier than building a comparable structure on Earth and transporting it to the lunar surface.

Now, thanks to recent research performed aboard the International Space Station, we have a much better idea of what to expect when those first batches of locally-sourced concrete are mixed up on the Moon or Mars. Of course, like most things related to spaceflight, the reality has proved to be a bit more complex than expected.

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