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Archives for August 2010

Danish rocketeers ready to launch British dummy

Jonathan Amos | 22:38 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Go, Randy. Go! A group of Danish rocketeers has headed out into the Baltic Sea to launch a British dummy about 30km into the sky.

The dumb doll will sit atop the Heat-1X booster when it flies from a restricted military range, perhaps as early as Thursday.

The Heat-1X is the latest iteration in Copenhagen Suborbitals' quest to develop the ultimate in personal space transportation.

Dummy in the rocket

If all goes well in this test - and the others that will follow - then Randy will be replaced with a real human.

The idea is that this passenger would half-sit, half-stand inside a tube little wider than their shoulders. Above their head would be a see-through dome that could afford them the most spectacular view as the rocket climbed above the blue of Earth.

Heat-1X booster on tow/launch rigAt a predetermined moment, the tubular spacecraft would separate from the booster and the passenger would then follow a weightless ballistic trajectory. The maximum altitude hoped for would be a little over 100km - in space.

The return would be a parachute-assisted splash-down, again in the Baltic Sea.

There are many amateur groups around the world who chase the dream of developing their own sub-orbital launch system. The Copenhagen team have attracted attention because of the very "singular" way they hope to launch their private astronauts.

And like all such ventures, the project has been built on limited cash and an awful lot of goodwill. Randy, for example, is the sort of dummy that is used by fire services to practise rescues from burning buildings.

He was paid for and donated to the Danish team by a supporter in the UK.

Kristian von Bengtson leads Copenhagen Suborbitals with project partner Peter Madsen. Kristian tried to work out for me the total cost of the endeavour:

"In the past year, we've spent about 50,000 euros, which has been paying the rent, producing the rocket and the spacecraft and also the launch platform. So that's about the same price as a family car, at least here in Denmark. But then again, we've had a lot of equipment from companies which has basically cost them nothing to give us. It's definitely less than 100,000 euros - and that's about the price of the keyhole of the space shuttle."

The Copenhagen Suborbitals website carries plenty of impressive YouTube-style videos of static motor tests.

The Heat-1X is a hybrid booster - it will burn a solid polyurethane propellant with liquid oxygen. Kristian says it should achieve about 70-80 kilonewtons of thrust this week on lift-off (by comparison the Ariane 5 develops 13,000kN).

The goal on this first flight is only to go a few tens of km, to test the systems and then move on to the next iteration. Step by step, says Kristian:

"We're not going to change the dummy for a real person until we've seen the rocket fly to the final height, the final apogee; and many times so we can feel secure about riding it ourselves. And that may take more than three years; it may take less than 10 years - it's difficult to say because we're not trying to kill ourselves here; we're just having fun. We'll do it when we're ready to do it."

We'll follow their progress, and that of Randy, with interest.

Who'll get into space first - Rescue Randy or the UK's real astronaut in training, Esa's Major Tim Peake?

The Danish government has given Copenhagen Suborbitals the use of its ESD139 test range until 17 September.

If the Heat-1X cannot fly before that date, the team will have to wait until 2011 for another chance to launch.

Copenhagen Suborbitals

How the 'LHC in space' lost its British 'engine'

Jonathan Amos | 01:06 UK time, Friday, 27 August 2010


The mythical beast has been sighted. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) has finally arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin final checks before being launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in February.

The AMSThe AMS has variously been described as the "LHC in space" and the "world's most expensive space experiment", besides a few other derogatory labels that have played on its $1.5bn price tag.

The machine will be placed atop the station's starboard truss to undertake a comprehensive survey of cosmic rays - the storm of high-energy particles (mostly protons and helium nuclei) that are accelerated in our direction from supernovas, black holes and who knows what other exotic corners of the cosmos.

It promises remarkable new discoveries about the origin and make-up of the Universe.

There's a chance it could find anti-matter, the mirror of the material from which we're all made; and even identify the mysterious "dark matter" that scientists say makes a bigger contribution to the mass of the cosmos than all the stuff we see through telescopes. That's a big billing.

For those involved in the project, though, getting to Kennedy must have a slightly surreal feel about it given the number of times AMS has flirted with cancellation.

Its most serious crisis followed the Columbia tragedy when Nasa wrote the detector out of the shuttle launch manifest, saying all remaining flights had to be used to complete the space station and stock it with essential supplies.

Studies were done to see if AMS could launch on an expendable rocket like an Atlas or Delta instead. But this route threatened to add hundreds of millions of dollars on to the existing project budget and might only have got the experiment to the ISS in time to be chucked in the Pacific Ocean along with a decommissioned station (at the time expected to occur at the end of 2015).

And then Congress stepped in and mandated Nasa to fly an extra shuttle. AMS was back on.

What's more, US President Obama said he wanted to extend the life of the space station to at least 2020... and that presented the 16-nation AMS collaboration with a dilemma.

The AMS arrives at Kennedy

At the core of the machine is a magnet that bends particles as they enter through the top. The way they bend reveals their charge, a fundamental property that together with information from a slew of detectors tells scientists precisely what they're dealing with - very probably only a boring proton but just possibly a strange piece of matter never witnessed before.

The original intention was to fly a superconducting magnet, a frigid and very powerful device but one that loses its edge when its liquid helium refrigerant runs dry.

Without a top-up (and this can't be done in space), the superconducting device would give AMS only about three good years.

The assembled UK magnetWhen the station was going to be ditched in 2016, this didn't much matter but with an extended platform operating until deep into the 2020s, it suddenly represented a wasted opportunity.

So the AMS scientists decided to remove the superconducting magnet and replace it with a less powerful permanent one.

The swap-out would reduce the machine's sensitivity slightly but give it many more years of service. And for an experiment which relies on statistics, on getting millions of particle measurements - length of service is really important.

But here's the thing for those who follow UK efforts in space: the superconducting magnet was a British-designed and built technology. It was made at Scientific Magnetics (formerly Space Cryomagnetics) of Culham, in Oxfordshire.

Steve Harrison at the company gave 12 years of his life to the magnet, and this week he watched as AMS arrived at Kennedy without his "engine". AMS now uses a Chinese-built device instead. He told me:

"It was always a very risky proposition. To be quite honest, most of the time I was expecting AMS never to fly anyway because the shuttle programme was in such doubt. Yes, I was gutted; but it was one of those things. There's now a project under way to transfer some of the technology into the European Space Agency so that it can be used for other purposes. It's not all lost. Esa are interested in using it for magnetic shielding of astronauts on interplanetary missions. Magnetic shielding from cosmic rays is one possible application."

The UK is not involved in the AMS collaboration at a programmatic level; but just as in several other areas of space activity where Britain chooses to stand aside, one of its companies was still called upon at contractor level to fulfil tasks no-one else could do.

It's good to see that the effort Scientific Magnetics put into AMS will live on, even if its superconducting magnet only ever makes it into a museum.


Transition Radiation Detector determines highest-energy particle velocities
Silicon trackers follow particle paths; how they bend reveals their charge
Permanent magnet is core component of AMS and makes particles curve
Time-of-flight counters determine lowest-energy particle velocities
Star trackers scan star fields to establish AMS's orientation in space
Cerenkov detector makes accurate velocity measurements of fast particles
Electromagnetic calorimeter measures energy of impacting particles
Anti-coincidence counter filters signal from unwanted side particles

Talking and looking: Iridium's 'next' big idea

Jonathan Amos | 11:40 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Their job is to provide communications anytime, anywhere. And it's been a busy summer for the companies that provide satellite phone and data services.

Earlier this month, we saw UK-based Inmarsat announce a $1.2bn project to launch three huge broadband satellites. The US Globalstar concern was also making news, taking delivery of the first of its next-generation spacecraft.

More on both these developments in future postings, but I want to just dwell for a moment on that other big mobile satellite services story of the summer - Iridium Next.

Virginia-based Iridium, like Globastar, is having to upgrade its current network and has contracted Franco-Italian manufacturer Thales Alenia Space to build 81 spacecraft for the purpose.

Sixty-six satellites will be put in six planes some 780km above the Earth (the remainder will be held on the ground as spares) over the course of 2015-2017.

It's an enormous - and expensive - undertaking that I first wrote about in June.

What I didn't touch on at the time was the piggy-back element of Iridium Next - the new constellation's "hosted payloads".

Iridium Next satellite

On every one of the new spacecraft, Iridium is making available a 30-by-40-by-70cm volume that can be filled with a third-party's Earth or space observation sensor, up to a mass of 50kg.

Iridium likes to describe its Next project as the biggest private space venture in the world today. Certainly, if a lot of these hosted payload opportunities are taken up then Next would also become the largest privately operated Earth observation programme as well.

It's not a new idea that telecommunications satellites should also engage in a bit of Earth sensing on the side, but it's the scale of what's on offer here which is fascinating.

Several studies have been done, some involving major space agencies, to look at how you might employ the new Iridium constellation in an Earth observation role. Ideas include:

  • GPS radio occultation - sensing the way GPS signals bend through the atmosphere to learn something about temperature and humidity
  • Ocean and land colour imaging - looking for changes in ocean health and land use, eg algal blooms and deforestation
  • Earth's radiation budget - measuring the balance between the incoming energy from the Sun and outgoing energy leaving the Earth
  • Space situational awareness - making a catalogue of objects in space, some of which might pose a collision hazard for satellites

    Those I've spoken to say Iridium's chief selling point would be its ability to allow users to run networks of sensors across its constellation, enabling frequent measurements to be taken at many locations at different times of the day. In other words, to have a persistent surveillance capability.

    That clearly has military connotations - it could allow commanders to have instant space imagery because there would always be an iridium satellite overhead (that's the nature of the Iridium system).

    But also from a scientific perspective, multiple sensors would allow you to sample phenomena that evolve rapidly through a day or look very different in day and night conditions. Monitoring city pollution is perhaps a good example.

    Artist's impression of an Iridium Next satelliteThe US National Science Foundation has funded a Johns Hopkins University project called Ampere, which will use the data from magnetic field sensors already flying on the existing Iridium network to study the space environment around Earth.

    Again, persistent sensing of fast-changing circumstances.

    It will be interesting to see how many of the hosted payload opportunities are taken up. Some of the big agencies like the European Space Agency (Esa) have already said the proposition is not for them. That's not surprising - Esa likes to work on its own cutting edge projects; it's not so interested in taking part in operational systems.

    Price will be a key issue, too. Iridium is quoting something on the order of $5-9m to get onboard a satellite, with a $100,000-500,000 annual service charge depending on data needs.

    It's certainly competitive, but again some organisations, especially if they have limited observation needs, might prefer to go down the route of buying a single small satellite which can provide high data rates they don't have to share with anyone else.

    And time is clearly a factor. Iridium and Thales Alenia will be locking down the design of the new spacecraft towards the end of 2012. That's not long for someone to get an instrument ship-shape

    Speaking to Don Thoma of Iridium, he believes at least two-thirds of the Next satellites will fly with an additional payload. No deals have been signed yet but he expects that to change now that the company has chosen Thales Alenia to build the satellites:

    "What that has done for us is give us one design. Before that we had a generic hosted payload interface and a generic satellite bus that we could talk about to potential customers. And the biggest question we were getting was, 'OK, when are you going to make your selection and when are you moving forward with the prime contract?' Now that's done - the satellite bus is chosen, the actual hosted payload interfaces are clearly defined - and frankly it starts the clock to a set of critical development milestones over the next two years that really define the activities that have to occur to make the first launch."

    One to watch.

  • Bugs and humans will team up to explore space

    Jonathan Amos | 12:03 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


    When humans do decide to push out beyond Earth, to establish a permanent presence on other Solar System bodies, their survival could depend on the humblest of organisms - bacteria and other microbes.

    It will be impossible for astronauts to take everything with them they need, or to keep their bases, on Mars say, continuously supplied by logistics ships.

    And it's for that reason that quite a bit of scientific research is now looking at what can be done to make space explorers more self-sufficient.

    Bacteria have a crucial role to play here - from being the key components in life-support systems to catalysing the production of rocket fuels.

    Artist's impression of a space base

    It's in that light that I've written a story today about the microbes that survived 553 days living on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS).

    Click on the video below and you can hear an explanation of the experiment from the Open University's Professor Charles Cockell who is fascinated by this type of study.

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    His group's ISS bugs are the longest-lived fully functioning, photosynthesising space microbes yet.

    Sitting on, and in, small chunks of rock taken from a sea cliff in southern England, the organisms endured a vacuum, swings in temperature, damaging levels of UV and desiccation.

    They couldn't do anything useful in such conditions; they went into a dormant state and hung on. But they proved their durability, and having the "right stuff" will be a quality required of any microbes taken on deep space missions.

    So what could these tiny explorers do?

    A fundamental role is likely to be in so-called closed-loop life-support systems, in which they work in tandem with mechanical filtration technologies to recycle waste water and air. Closed loop implies 100% recycling, or as close as is possible.

    You can see the beginnings of what these future systems might be like in the Micro Ecological Life Support System (Melissa) project now being run in Barcelona, Spain.

    Forty rats - which have the same oxygen requirement of one human astronaut - live inside a closed box that is sustained by a number of bioreactors.

    Other roles could include the extraction/leaching of useful minerals from rock. This idea is merely an extension of a role microbes already play on Earth. For example, quite a bit of the copper and zinc we use today is extracted from ores using this type of process.

    Microbes can also be used to break down rock to make the soil in which to grow plants. They can also improve the quality of that soil.

    On the Moon, for example, it's been shown that about half of the essential elements needed to grow crops already exist in the regolith - the dusty layer that covers the surface.

    Adding microorganisms, such as fungi, bacteria and algae, can get this soil into a state where it would support plant growth. You've no doubt heard about the famous experiment in which scientists grew French marigolds in Moon-like soils and even got them to flower.

    I wrote recently in this blog about the nightmare that is lunar dust. This extremely fine material is the result of the Moon's surface being pulverised for billions of years by asteroids. The Apollo crews got covered in the stuff.

    It is extremely damaging if it gets inside equipment, breaking seals and shorting electrical equipment. More than that, it's also potentially very hazardous if it gets into the lungs.

    Some scientists have proposed using bacteria to tackle this dust problem, too. Some microbial communities have the ability to form crusts that catch small particles. They could be used as a living filtration system.

    And I would think providing ready access to energy is going to be a fundamental role for future space microbes.

    The Melissa experimentThis could take the form of methane fuel production from the catalytic reaction of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Work is under way also on the development of microbial fuel cells which can generate electricity and process waste sludge and water.

    The point about all this - and to bring the discussion back to the space station microbes - is that none of the places we might want to go to set up a base can sustain unprotected microorganisms on its surface. That's true we believe also of Mars. The UV conditions are just too severe.

    This means the "micro-nauts" would have to live inside boxes just like the astronauts; but they need to be hardy enough that if systems break down they can survive, for a short period at least, the sort of unshielded extremes that our ISS bugs managed to endure.

    I suppose the ultimate use of bacteria in space would be terraforming - the use of microorganisms to turn an otherwise hostile environment into something more amenable to humans.

    Perhaps one day, we'll despatch microbes to distant planets to transform them into habitable worlds, replacing their atmospheres with breathable gases.

    It might take many millions of years to achieve, of course.

    I'm not sure I'd have the patience. And over such timescales, it might be pointless anyway because by then we could have evolved into thinking machines that no longer need a cosy Earth.

    The 'dark science' and poker of space telescopes

    Jonathan Amos | 17:06 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010


    Pick your dream space mission. That's what a panel of US scientists has done.

    The Decadal Survey produced by the National Research Council has listed what it believes the big priorities should be in the coming 10 years for American astronomical and astrophysical research.

    The document is based on wide consultation within the scientific community, and it puts a concept known as WFIRST at the top of the pile.

    JDEM ConceptThe Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is regarded as a must-have because it would help settle some fundamental questions about the nature of "dark energy", the mysterious phenomenon which appears to be driving the Universe apart at an accelerating rate.

    The existence of dark energy was established in 1998 and is one of the great discoveries of recent years, but science understands precious little about it.

    WFIRST is envisaged as a 1.5m telescope costing about $1.6bn.

    It would be despatched to a gravitational "sweetspot" in space known as L2, a location more than a million kilometres from Earth on its night side where the observatory could have an unencumbered view of the sky.

    One key objective would be to spy as many stellar explosions, or supernovas, as possible. Scientists will want to see how their light has been stretched by the expansion of space. This will give them greater insight into how dark energy has worked through time and perhaps give them some clues as to how it might operate in the future.

    WFIRST would get complementary information by mapping the distribution of some two billion galaxies. The pattern in the great voids that exist between the galaxies can be used as a kind of "yardstick" also to probe the expansion through time.

    And a third technique, known as weak lensing, would look at how the light from far-distant galaxies has been subtly shaped by intervening matter, again giving insights into the influence of dark energy through the epochs.

    The cosmic webWFIRST wouldn't be just a dark energy mission, though. It would address broader issues, too, including undertaking a survey of exoplanets in the Milky Way to try to put some better statistics on how many Earth-like objects might be out there.

    The idea for WFIRST hasn't come out of thin air. Like all mission concepts, it's had a long gestation [50KB PDF]. Previous ideas have been some of this way before, most notably a concept known as the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM).

    And from this blog's perspective, there's a European Space Agency mission (Esa) already in study that would do much of what WFIRST aspires to do. It's called Euclid.

    Euclid is currently in a competitive selection process with a couple of other Esa space concepts for two launch opportunities, in 2017 and 2018.

    Would the US and Europe independently fly their own, very similar missions, or would they seek to merge the two concepts? The latter would seem the logical option, but achieving a happy marriage is by no means a straightforward task.

    Euclid conceptEurope expects to make a decision on whether to fly Euclid within the next 12 months; the US probably wouldn't make up its mind on whether to go with WFIRST for three or four years for what would be a launch in 2020. So the timelines are different.

    Whilst the Decadal Survey indicates it would like to see international cooperation on WFIRST, it is adamant that the US should lead such an important dark energy mission.

    European scientists, on the other hand, have stated already that a Euclid-type mission is a top priority for them too, and they (and European industry) would also want to lead any co-operative venture. So, primacy would be a sticking point.

    Technically, Europe needs American involvement in Euclid. The European telescope's infrared detectors would have to be sourced from the US because they do not exist on this side of the Atlantic. But then Europe is in the advantageous position of having a far-more advanced design which is now undergoing detailed industrial assessment. It's in a good position to drive a hard bargain.

    An important observation to make is that the Decadal Survey is a report from an influential panel; it's not an agency that implements the science. That's Nasa's job. And starting in September, at bilateral talks, Nasa will begin to talk to Esa inearnest about how their dark energy ambitions can both be met.

    The poker, the horse-trading - whatever you call it - will start to get serious. How it will turn out is anyone's guess.

    Professor Bob Nichol from Portsmouth University, UK, is working on Euclid. He believes the European concept is in a strong position right now:

    "Euclid is one of three remaining missions in the M-class Cosmic Vision process with Esa. The decision will be made mid-2011 and two of the three will go forward for construction. So Euclid has a two in three chance of being selected and flying. Esa has an announcement of opportunity out at present to select the team that will complete the definition phase for Euclid by mid-2011, so it is an interesting time and Esa is making good progress in selecting its Cosmic Vision missions.
    "It is worth stressing that Euclid already could include upto 20% involvement from Nasa and this is written into all the Euclid documents as an option. US scientists have been involved in parts of the discussions, and Esa certainly continues to talk with Nasa about Euclid involvement."

    One aspect that bears down on both agencies, and which is likely to shape the stances they adopt, is the present fiscal environment.

    The 2000 Decadal Survey top-rated the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due for launch in 2014/2015. This observatory's cost has spiralled in recent years to something like $5bn (Esa is the "junior partner", providing instrumentation and the launch rocket).

    Neither the US nor Europe can afford to repeat the JWST experience.

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