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Archives for July 2010

Boeing flags its intentions in commercial space

Jonathan Amos | 08:00 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

I entrust my life to the Boeing corporation every year; as do the many millions who board planes to fly around the globe. The Chicago-based company has been in business for almost 100 years. Safety is everything.

CST100 cutaway with crewSo when I got to meet a group of its space executives this week at the Farnborough Air Show, I wanted to know how a company of its pedigree reacted when it heard US senators talk of commercial space as being too soon, and "too big a risk".

If it hadn't been for a Eurofighter screaming above the Boeing chalet at the time, you might have been able to hear a pin drop. These are delicate times politically, and no-one wants to speak too soon just in case anything they say comes out in a way that could be misinterpreted.

It was a slightly cheeky question, because much of the sniping at commercial space that has come from Congress these past few months has not really been directed at the likes of Boeing; it's directed at wannabes like SpaceX, new kids on the block who can't trace their heritage to an early 20th Century timber merchant.

But the point is well made: many of the companies who would like to lead the new age of commercial space are actually the same companies who built the old "space age" under government contract over the past 50 years - and none is bigger than Boeing itself.

The company's John Elbon eventually ventured a response to my question thus:

"We have not been as outspoken and as public about being involved in commercial up until this point; I think we will in the future. I think as those folks understand that all the spacecraft that have flown humans up until this point have been built by contractors - and they've been safe and reliable. We build a lot of aeroplanes that fly a lot of people, and they're safe and reliable. So this is really about a different approach to procurement as opposed to different people building the spaceships. I think as that is better understood, that opinion [about the riskiness of commercial space] will change."

Elbon is the project manager on Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST) 100 craft. The ship is its proposal for a commercial space taxi to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

It would launch most likely on an Atlas 5, although it is being designed in such a way that you could stick it atop a Delta 4 or even a Falcon 9.

The capsule is bigger than Apollo, and Boeing showed off new artist renderings at Farnborough that had up to seven astronauts sitting across two decks.

Boeing is "maturing the design" with money it has received from Nasa's CCDev (Crew development) programme - the same pot of money Congress is now looking to squeeze as it reshapes President Obama's new "vision" for space exploration.

Boeing believes it can have a certified launch concept - and that includes a man-worthy Atlas with a crew escape system - ready for operation in 2015.

A Bigelow station with arriving CST 100To make it pay its way, Boeing needs the CST-100 to fly, and to fly often - which is why the executives at Farnborough were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the hotel entrepreneur Bob Bigelow.

For a decade, Bigelow has been investigating the possibilities offered by inflatable space structures, and he says his company is now ready to put its first inflatable space station in orbit for 2015.

Because Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel business, people assume he is merely trying to extend his Earthly operations into space. But as he explained to me, his company - Bigelow Aerospace - would merely provide the "office space" and it would be down to those who rented the modules to decide how to use them.

"Our customers are principally two major groups. The first group is sovereign clients - other countries that do not have the kind of access to the ISS that they would like to have, and that want to shape their own space futures. We hope to play a role in being able to offer them facilities in which they can do that. The other category is corporations. These would be companies connected to materials science, perhaps nano development or pharmaceutical development. Then there will be theoretically other categories. Folks may want to produce movies and maybe Sir Richard Branson may want to have one as a hotel."

You can hear an extended version of our chat by clicking on the audio below.

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We've all become accustomed to the "tin cans" that make up the International space Station and so our first reaction on seeing a Bigelow module might be to question their flight worthiness purely on the basis of "they're different".

Artist rendering of CST 100But these inflatables are based on a Nasa design. Their hulls are more than 40cm thick and incorporate layers of Vectran, one of those super-strength polymers you find in the protective gear that prevents lumberjacks from accidentally chopping off a leg with a misplaced chainsaw. Tough stuff.

If you want to rent one of Bigelow's big inflatables (his 330-cu-metre module) for four years, he is currently quoting $95m a year. Seats on the CST-100 to get your astronauts up there are being quoted at $24,950,000 per person.

Some three-quarters of all the monies collected are expected to end up in the hands of the transportation company - Boeing (See a video here of the CST-100 visiting a Bigelow station).

But the comments of Roger Krone, president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing, bring home just how marginal the economics are going to be on all of this, and the politicians on Capitol Hill may want to reflect on them as they work to frame Nasa's future budget and the cash it will have to support a fledgling commercial astronaut taxi service:

"For [a] commercial crew transportation system to work there has to be more than just ISS. The businesses cases won't close on just supporting ISS. I think that is universally understood within the industry; there needs to be other places to go. And frankly it is going to take entrepreneurial spirits like Bob and others to think about where those other places might be and to create those destinations."

Watch this space.

A lesson in 'political science, not rocket science'

Jonathan Amos | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010

Are we seeing the beginnings of a compromise on Capitol Hill?

Committee press conferenceUS President Barack Obama had laid out his vision for the future of human spaceflight.

He was certain that low-Earth orbit operations should be handed to the commercial sector - the likes of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.

As for Nasa, he believed it should have a much stronger R&D focus. He wanted the agency to concentrate on difficult stuff, and take its time before deciding on how America should send astronauts to distant targets such as asteroids and Mars.

This vision invited fury from many in Congress and beyond because of its likely impact in those key States where the re-moulding of the agency would lead to many job losses - in Florida, Texas, Alabama and Utah.

Now, Republican and Democratic members of the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have unanimously approved a position that may end months of dispute in Washington DC.

A shuttle-derived concept for a heavy-lift rocketTheir bill supports many aspects of Obama's policy, most noticeably an acceptance that the massively expensive Moon-bound Constellation programme - in its present guise - must come to an end. But it seeks also to limit the scope and pace of Nasa's makeover.

The $19bn Nasa Authorization Act of 2010 still has some way to go before becoming law, however it does appear to have the backing of the White House and the space agency's top officials.

Its key proposals are [137KB PDF]:

  • A continuation of US participation in the International Space Station (ISS) until at least 2020, and the promise to maximise its use.

  • The addition of one more shuttle flight to the launch manifest. This would see Nasa fly Atlantis one further time. The orbiter is currently being prepared as a standby, rescue shuttle for the final missions of Discovery and Endeavour.

  • The budgeting of some $11bn in the next few years to enable Nasa to start development now of a new heavy-lift rocket based on shuttle heritage and lessons learned from the Constellation programme. The rocket should be ready by 31 December 2016.

  • The retention of the Orion capsule - America's next-generation crew ship.

  • The continued provision of seed funding to the commercial sector to help it develop low-cost "space taxis" capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS. The funding arrangements would change, however. Instead of the White House's original request for $3.3bn over three years, the Committee's approach would provide $1.3bn. (Obama had wanted some $6bn in total over five years; the Committee says the total may still be possible, but over a longer period) [updated 17/07/10].

    Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex), a vociferous critic in recent months of the commercialisation of the US space programme, said the legislation was about finding the correct balance in space policy:

    "I am also concerned that we work with commercial space operators but not turn over the entire Nasa programme to, as yet untested, companies that would not have the expertise that we have built in Nasa through the years. I think we have created a balance in which commercial is going to be very important; and it will be transitional. Down the road, perhaps commercial will have the capabilities to take over the main components of space exploration. But we're not there yet; it is too big a risk."

    The concern will be that the new plan simply repeats some of the old mistakes identified by last year's Augustine review of US human spaceflight policy - that of asking Nasa once again to build a big new rocket, on a tight schedule, without sufficient funding and a well-defined purpose.

    As Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut and member of the Augustine panel, put it:

    "This appears to be a good compromise between the White House and these members of Congress. The only big picture question in my mind is whether or not the funding is adequate to perform this plan."

    It was put directly to Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla), a former astronaut on the Senate committee, that past history was not very encouraging. He rejected that notion:

    "The Committee cannot tell Nasa how to design a rocket but we can give policy direction to the executive branch of government, and we've done that in the bill - utilising shuttle-derived technology, building on that; not building the largest rocket around but starting in the range of 75 to 100 metric tonnes, that is evolvable and that would be built over the course of those six years within a budget of $11.5bn. Now, that is do-able; and if anyone tells you it's not, then if I were you I would question their particular agenda."

    The mood music suggests the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has found a peace formula.

    The White House spokesman Nick Shapiro was quoted as saying the deal worked out with the senators "contains the critical elements necessary for achieving the president's vision for Nasa".

    Lori Garver, Nasa's deputy administrator, echoed that when she said: "This is a milestone in the realignment of the space programme for the 21st Century," adding also: "It preserves the most important parts of the president's plan".

    But others will be disappointed to see a plan that appears in their view to dilute too much the original Obama vision. I was interested to see the comments of John Grunsfeld, a former Nasa chief scientist and the astronaut who participated in three Hubble repair missions:

    "Overall, does this look like the kind of bill that was planned by a team of rocket scientists and aerospace designers? No, it doesn't."
  • The private spaceships taking shape in Torino

    Jonathan Amos | 13:45 UK time, Thursday, 8 July 2010

    Two bright, shiny cylinders in Torino stand as a symbol of changing times, of a new way of doing space.

    These cylinders are key components of two private re-supply ships that will be going to the International Space Station (ISS) next year.

    The new unmanned cargo vessels go by the name of Cygnus and they will be capable of hauling a couple of tonnes of food and equipment to the 350km-high platform.

    You can see an animation of what a Cygnus mission will be like further down the page.

    Cygnus PCMsThe robotic Cygnus is being produced by the Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation. It was awarded a $1.9bn contract by the US space agency (Nasa) to restock the ISS with 20 tonnes of consumables and spares through to 2015.

    It is part of Nasa's new approach, an attempt to bring a stronger commercial emphasis to human spaceflight by getting private industry to run the development of new rockets and spaceships rather than have those projects led in-house as institutional programmes.

    Companies like Orbital receive seed monies only when they pass certain milestones.

    ISS approach of CygnusOrbital is developing the Taurus II rocket, which launches Cygnus, and the cargo ship's service and propulsion unit - that part of the Cygnus spacecraft which contains the computers, navigation and orientation systems and thrusters.

    But for the Pressurised Cargo Module (PCM) - the element that holds the precious stores for the astronauts - Orbital has turned to the Franco-Italian company Thales Alenia Space (TAS).

    The TAS contribution is by far and away the biggest European participation in this emerging era of "new space" in the US. The value to TAS of the Cygnus initiative is $200m.

    I always think it's a remarkable statistic that on the US side of the space station, more than half of the pressurised volume - that part in which the astronauts live and work - has been constructed by TAS at its Torino facility.

    That's where I saw the first two flight PCMs this week. They've got about six months' work left on them before they're shipped to Dulles to be mated with their service modules.

    What you see on this page is the basic shell of the PCMs. TAS has developed a system to machine cylinder segments from single tubes of forged metal to produce a shell that has a thickness of just 3.2mm.

    The cylinder segments are then joined end to end, depending on how big Cygnus needs to be. For the standard ship, two segments are used; for the enhanced version, which will carry 2.7 tonnes of stores, a third segment is added.

    Cygnus hatch positionThere's quite a bit of outfitting left to do. On the module on the left of the photo, you can see where the 37-inch hatch, specially developed by TAS, will go.

    The first shipment to Dulles is in February, for an expected launch in June. The timeline for TAS is tight.

    As we've discussed on this blog previously, there's a lively discussion going on in the US right now about the policies being pursued by the White House and Nasa.

    Many voices in Congress deplore the change in emphasis and have directly called into question the capability - and, more significantly, the safety standards - of the commercial projects.

    It is a pressure that is felt across the Atlantic in Italy. Walter Cugno is the programme manager on Cygnus at TAS. He told me:

    "The pressure comes from some discussion, some criticism or some challenging about how a commercial programme can be so short on schedule, so cheap in terms of cost while still meeting the safety requirements and all the quality levels which are requested for an institutional manned programme. That is the real challenge of the commercial programme - to demonstrate that you can be quick, you can be cheap while the level of quality and safety is the same for all the other modules of the International Space Station."

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    A short distance from the Cygnus PCMs at the Torino facility, you can see an example of those "other modules".

    ICC for Edoardo Amaldi ATV-3TAS is in the process of making a PCM for the European Space Agency's (Esa) third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). This module is actually known by the different name of Integrated Cargo Carrier (ICC).

    The ATV is colossal cargo ship, more than twice the size of Cygnus and with a level of sophistication that goes well beyond its little American cousin.

    If one thinks of Cygnus as a standard delivery van then ATV is a top of the range space juggernaut. The Esa vehicle is a multi-billion-euro programme.

    Comparing the two ships is not so easy, however. They represent very different specifications and very different approaches. But the point worth making here is that TAS, which might be considered an "old space" company, is also keen to play its part in "new space" as well. It's got some clever ideas right now for some low-cost inflatable modules that could be flown in space.

    Whichever way cargo is delivered to the station, the supplies will be gratefully received by the astronauts. Walter Cugno again:

    "We have a type of structure [in Cygnus] that allows you to put cargo bags one on top of the other and close them with straps. There is not one cubic centimetre of the internal volume of Cygnus which will be left free from cargo. So when the astronauts open the hatch for the first time, they will have a wall of bags in front of them because everything is utilised to bring cargo on to the space station."

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    Watch this space.

    Norway resorts to ship-watching from space

    Jonathan Amos | 08:10 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010

    Norway's coastline is huge. The mainland's rim stretches for more than 2,500km but if you measure it to include all the fjords and nooks and crannies, it comes out at more than 25,000km.

    Norway watersLittle wonder then that the Scandinavian nation relies heavily on satellites to help it monitor what's going on around its territory.

    And it has a fascinating mission launching in the next few days that will enable it to keep even better watch on its waters.

    AISSat-1 is what's termed a nano-sat. It's a small cube measuring 20cm along the square and weighing just 6kg, but it carries a clever little instrument.

    It will track the movement of all large ships moving around Norway by picking up the signals from their AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders.

    All vessels over 300 gross tonnes (and all passenger ships) now have to carry AIS.

    It is, in first instance, a short-range ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore system that details not just position, course, and speed, but also information about a ship's type, draught, cargo - even its captain.

    Model of AISSat-1You can get an idea of what AIS is capable of doing by clicking on this link which goes to a page that does live tracking off Stavanger.

    The limitation of AIS is that communication with a coastal receiving station is line of sight, meaning it's possible to keep track of vessels to no more than about 50-70km off shore (unless you put another receiver on a rig, say).

    And with Norwegian territorial waters encompassing two million square km, you can see why the national authorities might want to boost the effectiveness of the system.

    Bo Andersen, director general of the Norwegian Space Centre, told me:

    "Norway has the largest sea area to mange in Europe. And this area is the source for a lot of Norwegian income, from oil to fisheries. And we want to manage these resources in the best possible manner; and we do that now with radar satellites that give us quite a good overview about where ships are. But they don't give us knowledge about which ships they are.
    "Of course, the fisheries authorities and the coastguard can go out in aeroplanes and check the ships, but we are talking about an area that's bigger than the Mediterranean. So we want a more efficient system.
    "Along our coast, we have lanes where ships must go. There are strict rules on how close vessels can come to the coast, and for different types of cargo you might want ships to go further away. With this system you can follow if those ships are following the lanes they're obliged to."

    Norway has already tested Space-AIS with a special receiver flown on the space station. This is the source of the remarkable maps posted on this page.

    AIS tracks across the globeIn the above image, the progress of Norwegian ships (black arrows) is tracked on successive ISS passes. The map at the bottom shows a close-up view of the North Pacific.

    The Norwegian Space Centre is adamant that the country's only interest is to monitor what vessels are doing in its waters. AISSat-1, when it gets into orbit, will not be collecting data to sell to other parts of the world. Bo Andersen again:

    "The International Maritime Organisation has set down a working group to find out what sort of regulations there should be on AIS from space. It is clear that this type of information is very sensitive. It's commercially sensitive in that it tells you where your competitor's boats are. It is security sensitive in that it could tell a pirate off Somalia which ships are coming that would be a good sitting duck with a lot of money. So this is not the type of system you would want to become completely open."

    Certainly, AISSat-1 is going to become a very valuable tool for the Norwegians. Its waters are likely to get ever more crowded in future years.

    One can imagine that if Arctic sea-ice continues its retreat, more fisheries vessels will want to come into the region, and many more cargo ships will want to make use of the North East Passage.

    It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Norway is already talking about an AISSat-2 even before AISSat-1 has left the ground.

    AIS tracks near Alaska

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