Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ISS is What's Next

The orbiter Endeavour docked at the International Space Station on May 23, 2011.

What's next?

It's a very common question asked these days by tourists visiting the Space Coast. Most of them know little about NASA's space program other than the Space Shuttle program is coming to an end.

To answer that question, has posted a lengthy article outlining the capabilities of the International Space Station now that construction is complete.

Following the completion of the STS-135 mission and the end of the Space Shuttle Program in July, the beginning of Expedition 29 in September will mark the official transition into the ISS utilization era, where, unlike in the assembly and maintenance era, a minimum of 35 hours of crew time per week will be devoted to science activities.

The main purpose of the utilization era will be to support space-based scientific research and develop technologies for human exploration Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).

Among the more exotic ideas, "NASA managers are also discussing the prospect of a beam energy transfer demonstration on the ISS, whereby the ISS would wirelessly transfer electrical energy from itself to an orbiting Falcon satellite."

The ISS is particularly useful for this application due to the large amounts of solar power available via its large solar arrays, which will mean that a beam energy payload can be developed and flown without its own set of large solar arrays, thus reducing the cost and development time of the payload.

The article also describes how the ISS will be used as a testbed for missions Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).

In order to meet this requirement, NASA’s ISS Program and Exploration Program have initiated the ISS as a Testbed for Analogue Research (ISTAR) project. ISTAR will look to solve Exploration Developmental Test Objectives (xDTOs), which, according to the L2 presentation, are “treated as ISS payloads for manifestation, prioritisation, and potential implementation."

One example is simulating the 20-minute delays that will be experienced with communications between Earth and a Mars-bound vehicle.

As such, for a human BEO exploration mission, the current highly-involved role of Mission Control, which oversees every astronaut activity in great detail, will change to a less-involved role of Mission Support, which will only be called upon by the crew in the event of a major problem. Therefore, astronauts will need to have much more control of their own activities and timelines on future BEO missions.

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