Complexity is a funny thing. In prehistoric times, a caveman might float across a lake on a log. That’s simple. But as you add a rudder, a sail, or even a motor, it gets more and more complex. But if you add enough complexity — a GPS and an autopilot, for example, it becomes simple again. The SpaceX Dragon capsule actually docks itself to the ISS. However, the crew on the station can take over manually if they need to. What would that be like? Try the simulation and find out. If you don’t make it on the first, try, [Scott Manley’s] video below might help you out.
This isn’t a flashy Star Wars-style simulator. Think more 2001. Movement is slow and it is easy to get out of control. The user interface is decidedly modern compared to the old Apollo era
Under the current Administration, NASA has been tasked with returning American astronauts to the Moon as quickly as possible. The Artemis program would launch a crewed mission to our nearest celestial neighbor as soon as 2024, and establish a system for sustainable exploration and habitation by 2028. It’s an extremely aggressive timeline, to put it mildly.
To have any chance of meeting these goals, NASA will have to enlist the help of not only its international partners, but private industry. There simply isn’t enough time for the agency to design, build, and test all of the hardware that will eventually be required for any sort of sustained presence on or around the Moon. By awarding a series of contracts, NASA plans to offload some of the logistical components of the Artemis program to qualified companies and agencies.
For anyone who’s been following the New Space race these last few years, it should come as no surprise to hear that SpaceX has already been awarded one of these lucrative logistics contracts. They’ve been selected as the first commercial provider for cargo deliveries to Gateway, a small space station that NASA intendeds to operate in lunar orbit. Considering SpaceX already has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, they were the ideal candidate to offer similar services for a future lunar outpost.
But that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. The so-called “Gateway Logistics Services” contract stipulates that providers must be able to deliver at least 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds) of pressurized cargo and 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of unpressurized cargo to lunar orbit. That’s beyond the capabilities of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which was only designed to service low Earth orbit.
To complete this new mission, the company is proposing a new vehicle they’re calling the Dragon XL that would ride to orbit on the Falcon Heavy booster. But even for this New Space darling, there’s not a lot of time to design, test, and build a brand-new spacecraft. To get the Dragon XL flying as quickly as possible, SpaceX is going to need to strip the craft down to the bare minimum.
Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), humanity has managed to maintain an uninterrupted foothold in low Earth orbit for just shy of 20 years. There are people reading these words who have had the ISS orbiting overhead for their entire lives, the first generation born into a truly spacefaring civilization.
But as the saying goes, what goes up must eventually come down. The ISS is at too low of an altitude to remain in orbit indefinitely, and core modules of the structure are already operating years beyond their original design lifetimes. As difficult a decision as it might be for the countries involved, in the not too distant future the $150 billion orbiting outpost will have to be abandoned.
Naturally there’s some debate as to how far off that day is. NASA officially plans to support the Station until at least 2024, and an extension to 2028 or 2030 is considered very likely. Political tensions have made it difficult to get a similar commitment out of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, but its expected they’ll continue crewing and maintaining their segment as long as NASA does the same. Afterwards, it’s possible Roscosmos will attempt to salvage some of their modules from the ISS so they can be used on a future station.
This close to retirement, any new ISS modules would need to be designed and launched on an exceptionally short timescale. With NASA’s efforts and budget currently focused on the Moon and beyond, the agency has recently turned to private industry for proposals on how they can get the most out of the time that’s left. Unfortunately several of the companies that were in the running to develop commercial Station modules have since backed out, but there’s at least one partner that still seems intent on following through: Axiom.
While the agreement technically only covers a single module, Axiom hasn’t been shy about their plans going forward. Once that first module is installed and operational, they plan on getting NASA approval to launch several new modules branching off of it. Ultimately, they hope that their “wing” of the International Space Station can be detached and become its own independent commercial station by the end of the decade.
It is easy to find out when the space station is passing overhead, and you may have run outside to see the blip of light moving at five miles per second. It turns out that some people make a hobby out of taking its picture, and if you have a pretty beefy telescope you can get some good shots. [Scott], on the other hand, wanted to take a handheld consumer-grade camera and try some pictures. His results show up in the video below.
If you look at the second video from [Thierry], you’ll see [Scott’s] videos are a far cry from state of the art. However, the [Thierry] photos essentially use a special telescope made to track the station very precisely. [Scott] is using a handheld, consumer-grade Nikon P1000.
Over the years, we’ve seen a number of projects that can blink an LED or otherwise notify you when the International Space Station is overhead. It’s a neat trick that brings space a little closer to home, but not exactly a groundbreaking achievement in 2020. That said, we think this version built by [Lance] deserves some special recognition for the unbearably adorable miniature ISS he designed it around.
Especially once you realize that its tiny little solar panels are actually functional. Well, more or less. [Lance] says conditions have to be pretty ideal for the panels to actually charge up the internal battery, so there’s the option to top things off with a USB cable if need be. To try and reduce power consumption as much as possible, he uses some pretty aggressive power saving tricks which are interesting in their own right.
As the ISS silently passes over your head several times per day, the notifier can’t spend too much time sleeping on the job. The Particle Photon needs to wake up regularly to pull down the time of the next pass given the current geographical position, then go back to sleep until right before showtime. When the Station is nearby, it blinks an Adafruit Smart NeoPixel positioned under a small 3D printed model of the Earth, and finally goes back to sleep until the process starts over.
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.
It’s been fifty years since man first landed on the Moon, but despite all the incredible advancements in technology since Armstrong made that iconic first small step, we’ve yet to reach any farther into deep space than we did during the Apollo program. The giant leap that many assumed would naturally follow the Moon landing, such as a manned flyby of Venus, never came. We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since, with a return to deep space perpetually promised to be just a few years away.
But why? The short answer is, of course, that space travel is monstrously expensive. It’s also dangerous and complex, but those issues pale in comparison to the mind-boggling bill that would be incurred by any nation that dares to send humans more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth. If we’re going to have any chance of getting off this rock, the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit needs to get dramatically cheaper.
Luckily, we’re finally starting to see some positive development on that front. Commercial launch providers are currently slashing the cost of putting a payload into space. In its heyday, the Space Shuttle could carry 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) to LEO, at a cost of approximately $500 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can put 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) into the same orbit for less than $100 million. It’s still not pocket change, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to call it revolutionary, either.
Unfortunately there’s a catch. The rockets being produced by SpaceX and other commercial companies are relatively small. The Falcon Heavy might be able to lift more than twice the mass as the Space Shuttle, but it has considerably less internal volume. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were trying to hurl lead blocks into space, but any spacecraft designed for human occupants will by necessity be fairly large and contain a considerable amount of empty space. As an example, the largest module of the International Space Station would be too long to physically fit inside the Falcon Heavy fairing, and yet it had a mass of only 15,900 kg (35,100 lb) at liftoff.
To maximize the capabilities of volume constrained boosters, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach the design and construction of crewed spacecraft. Especially ones intended for long-duration missions. As it so happens, exciting research is being conducted to do exactly that. Rather than sending an assembled spacecraft into orbit, the hope is that we can eventually just send the raw materials and print it in space.