Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Net Congestion

A Virgin Galactic LauncherOne promotional film. Video source: Video Galactic YouTube channel.

Florida Today reported on February 4 that a Space Florida proposal code-named “Project Sabal” is actually a company called OneWeb that intends to build a space Internet.

OneWeb is a joint venture funded by Virgin Group and Qualcomm, among other investors. Over 600 satellites would be deployed around the globe to create the “OneWeb Constellation.” Members of the Board of Directors include Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs, and Airbus Group CEO Thomas Enders, among others.

According to the OneWeb web site, the constellation would be comprised of “micro satellites” that will “ logically interlock with each other to create a coverage footprint over the entire planet.” The Florida Today article states that each satellite would weigh about 330 pounds.

OneWeb announced in June 2015 that it had contracted with Arianespace to launch up to 21 missions on the Russian Soyuz. OneWeb also announced an agreement with Virgin Galactic for 39 satellite launches on Virgin's proposed LauncherOne, a booster mounted on a 747 aircraft.

OneWeb also announced that day that Airbus Defence and Space had partnered with OneWeb to build the satellites. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said the constellation would be operational by 2019.

A June 2015 statement by OneWeb founder/CEO Greg Wyler. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.

The company has been looking for a location to build the satellites. According to a February 3 Wall Street Journal article, OneWeb had narrowed down its site to Florida, but did not disclose where.

The Florida Today report, if accurate, places the manufacturing site here in the Space Coast.

That would imply that many of the deployments might launch from Kennedy Space Center.

In October 2015, NASA announced contract awards to three companies under a new program called Venture Class Launch Services. The idea is to provide small satellite launch companies contracts for demonstration missions to prove their viability.

One of the companies was Virgin Galactic, which received $4.7 million for a LauncherOne demonstration flight reportedly at the Mojave Air & Space Port. If the satellites are manufactured here, then it would make sense to launch them from here as well.

In 2014, Kennedy Space Center remodeled the Launch Control Center's Firing Room 4 to support commercial launch users. A new Pad 39C could be used by Venture Class vertical launch companies, with the former Space Shuttle runway available for horizontal launch companies such as Virgin Galactic. In June 2015, Space Florida signed an agreement to manage the KSC runway, hoping to attract horizontal launch companies.

In January 2015, SpaceX announced its own intentions to build a space Internet, with funding from Google and Fidelity. The SpaceX constellation would feature about 4,000 satellites, according to media reports.

A June 2015 OneWeb Constellation promotional film. Video source: Airbus Defence and Space YouTube channel.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Port of Call

A 2014 Nanoracks video promoting its CubeSat deployer. Video source: NanoRacks YouTube channel.

Eric Berger of Ars Technica published January 27 a story about NanoRacks planning to add a commercial airlock at the International Space Station.

NanoRacks is proposing to build a large, half-cylinder-shaped airlock about two meters in diameter and 1.8 meters long. The airlock would attach to the end of the station’s Node 3 module, near the cupola. It would connect via a common berthing mechanism, or CBM, and then be pressurized. After pressurization, the hatch could be opened and the airlock configured for various tasks.

The airlock would launch in the trunk of a SpaceX cargo Dragon sometime in 2018, according to the report.

The NanoRacks airlock would attach to the end of the Node 3 airlock. Click to see additional images in the original article. Image source: Ars Technica.

Eric Berger writes that “The $12 million-15 million airlock would also allow NASA to bring in costly large pumps and storage tanks for repairs rather than disposing of them.”

In January 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to extend the ISS to 2024, four years beyond the existing agreement among the fifteen partner nations. As of this writing, all partners except the European Space Agency have agreed to the extension, and ESA is working through the formalities.

Extending the ISS to 2024 helped convince the NewSpace industry that there won't be a repeat of 2004, when the Bush administration announced its intention to end the station in Fiscal Year 2016 to fund what came to be known as Constellation. That administration chose to phase out university and commercial microgravity research in favor of research geared towards long-duration human spaceflight to the Moon and eventually to Mars. Principal investigators who were trying to raise money to fund ISS research felt betrayed by the NASA bureaucracy, and that distrust has lingered for years.

The multi-million dollar commitment by NanoRacks to add a new portal signals that the private sector now feels confident ISS will remain available for at least another ten years, if not longer.

Informal comments in recent years by NASA executives have suggested that the agency hopes to phase out its involvement with ISS by the middle of the 2020s, prioritizing human deep space flight with the Space Launch System and Orion capsule. Some have said they would like to find a commercial entity to take over station operations.

The NanoRacks announcement seems to be a first step in station commercialization.

But the key to continued ISS operation will be the viability of the Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats. The first modules are being built now in North Las Vegas.

A 2014 Bigelow Aerospace promotional video. Video source: Bigelow Aerospace YouTube channel.

A prototype, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), is scheduled to launch to the ISS on the SpaceX-8 delivery planned for March 2016.

If Bigelow's expandable technology proves viable, it may be more cost-efficient for the private sector to operate those habitats instead of trying to maintain an aging steel and aluminum structure. The first ISS module was launched in 1998, meaning that by the middle of the 2020s some station parts will be over 25 years old.

SpaceX may be the most publicly visible disruptive technology in the NewSpace industry, but in my opinion Bigelow and NanoRacks are the other two big pieces of the NewSpace equation. Commercial customers need a means of shipping their experiments to microgravity. SpaceX, Orbital ATK and soon Sierra Nevada Corporation will provide cargo transportation options, but NanoRacks will handle the actual shipping and deployment technology. Bigelow may offer a commercial laboratory free of government regulation and political interference.

NanoRacks customers aren't just in the private sector. They're also educational institutions, from universities to grade schools.

In February, the St. Thomas More Academy STMSat-1 will be deployed by NanoRacks from the station. The Arlington, Virginia grade school raised $50,000 to build its own communications satellite. The video at the top of this article depicts the CubeSat deployer that will launch STMSat-1.

Click here to learn more about NanoRacks' CubeSat deployment services.

By 2024, many of the students in the educational programs supported by NanoRacks will be entering their university years, or perhaps already graduated with a degree in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Those graduates will have on their résumé a microgravity science mission they flew during their education thanks to NanoRacks.

It's an investment in this nation's future spacefaring economy that would have been lost if the ISS had been splashed in this fiscal year, as planned by the Bush administration.

UPDATE January 29, 2016The Houston Chronicle published an article today about the Nanoracks announcement. Reporter Andrea Rumbaugh writes:

The proposal by NanoRacks could be the first time a private company owns, designs and builds a complicated element of the space station. Until now, private companies have mostly owned research hardware to hold experiments.

“It's a big deal,” said Mike Read, manager of the space station's National Lab Office. “It hasn't been done before.”

The space station has an airlock in the Japanese Experiment Module called Kibo that currently deploys satellites and places experiments outside the station, but it can't keep up with demand. The airlock is opened only 10 to 12 times a year because of logistical constraints.

Read said the airlock's ability to deploy cubesats — small satellites that weigh about 2 pounds and are roughly 10 centimeters wide, long and tall — was an unexpected success.

“That created a demand we didn't see coming,” he said.

NanoRacks plans to create a larger airlock that will hold five times the volume. The goal is to get more commercial projects into space while also helping NASA and other government agencies meet their needs.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Launch. Land. Repeat.

Click the arrow to watch the launch test. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

Blue Origin has posted a video of its latest suborbital test flight, flying once again the New Shepard booster and capsule first flown on November 23.

Blue founder Jeff Bezos wrote in his blog:

The very same New Shepard booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse. This time, New Shepard reached an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers) before both capsule and booster gently returned to Earth for recovery and reuse.

Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.

As I wrote on November 25, Blue's efforts compare more to the suborbital adventure tourism market than SpaceX attempts to land Falcon 9 boosters delivering payloads to orbit.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Solve for X

NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green comments on reports of a possible “Planet X” beyond the Kuiper Belt. Video source: NASA.

Two researchers at the California Institute of Technology announced this week the possible existence of a planet affecting objects in the Kuiper Belt.

(For the record, none of the researchers were named Cooper, Hofstetter, Koothrappali or Wolowitz.)

The article by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown was published January 20 by The Astronomical Journal. To read the paper, click here to download the PDF.

Mike Brown may be familiar to you, because his research into trans-Neputian objects (TNOs) was instrumental in the decision by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to reclassify Pluto and other similar objects as “dwarf planets.” In 2010, Brown published a book titled, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”

A January 20, 2016 interview with Michael Brown by National Public Radio. Audio source: NPR.org.

The existence of the Kuiper Belt has been confirmed only since the 1990s. NASA's web site defines the Kuiper Belt as “ a disc-shaped region beyond Neptune that extends from about 30 to 55 astronomical units (compared to Earth which is one astronomical unit, or AU, from the sun). This distant region is probably populated with hundreds of thousands of icy bodies larger than 100 km (62 miles) across and an estimated trillion or more comets.” Although theorized for decades, its existence was proven in 1992 with the discovery of an object farther from the Sun than Pluto. The Belt was named after astronomer Gerald Kuiper, who in 1951 proposed that a belt of icy bodies might lay beyond Neptune.

Mike Brown in 2003 discovered Eris, an object about one-fourth larger than Pluto. Its discovery led to the debate within the astronomical world about the correct definition of a planet. The “dwarf planet” category was created by the IAU in 2006 to include Pluto and Eris. The list now includes Ceres, Haumea and Makemake. Ceres is in the asteroid belt near Jupiter, while the others are in the Kuiper Belt.

Eris in relation to the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. Click to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.gov.

The discovery of more objects in the Kuiper Belt provided scientists with the opportunity to monitor their trajectories and how they might be affected by gravity from other objects, called an orbital perturbation.

The paper's abstract states:

Recent analyses have shown that distant orbits within the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt exhibit an unexpected clustering in their respective arguments of perihelion. While several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this alignment, to date, a theoretical model that can successfully account for the observations remains elusive. In this work we show that the orbits of distant Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) cluster not only in argument of perihelion, but also in physical space. We demonstrate that the perihelion positions and orbital planes of the objects are tightly confined and that such a clustering has only a probability of 0.007% to be due to chance, thus requiring a dynamical origin. We find that the observed orbital alignment can be maintained by a distant eccentric planet with mass ≳ 10m⊕ whose orbit lies in approximately the same plane as those of the distant KBOs, but whose perihelion is 180° away from the perihelia of the minor bodies. In addition to accounting for the observed orbital alignment, the existence of such a planet naturally explains the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects, as well as the known collection of high semimajor axis objects with inclinations between 60° and 150° whose origin was previously unclear. Continued analysis of both distant and highly inclined outer solar system objects provides the opportunity for testing our hypothesis as well as further constraining the orbital elements and mass of the distant planet.

Mathematical models suggest that an unknown force is acting on objects in the Kuiper Belt. Click the image to see at a larger size. Image source: California Institute of Technology.

The Cal Tech researchers refer to the theoretical world as Planet Nine, but others including NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green have nicknamed it “Planet X.”

Science magazine writes in its article about other claims to have found a Planet X in past decades. Conspiracy theorists claimed a dark planet named Nibiru is on a collision course with Earth, and NASA is part of a massive coverup.

Of course, any fan of Merrie Melodies has known since 1953 how to find Planet X.

How to find Planet X. Video source: Justin Edelson YouTube channel.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Missed It By That Much

A video posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on

SpaceX launched the Jason-3 weather satellite yesterday for NOAA and NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. After the Falcon 9 sent the payload into orbit, SpaceX returned the booster to attempt a landing on one of the company's Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships.

(What the rest of us would call a barge ...)

SpaceX failed in two earlier ASDS landing attempts in the Atlantic Ocean after launches from Cape Canaveral.

The above video released this morning by SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed the booster landed on the barge, but one leg failed causing the rocket to collapse and explode.

Musk later posted the below photo on Twitter of the smouldering remains on the barge. I cleaned it up a bit in Photoshop.

Original image source: @ElonMusk Twitter account.