The BBC Blogs - Spaceman

Archives for November 2010

Major Tim waits to fly the Union flag in space

Jonathan Amos | 16:35 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010


The UK never expected to have one of its nationals selected in the recent intake of new astronauts at the European Space Agency (Esa).

Why should it have? The country does not contribute to Esa's human spaceflight programme; working on the principle that underpins the optional programmes at the agency ("what you put in, you get out"), the UK certainly had no "right" to an astronaut.

But Major Tim Peake was selected - on merit - and on Monday graduated from basic training. Hopes have been raised that we will finally see an "official British astronaut" in orbit soon.

Tim Peake receives his certificate on graduation

Tim Peake receives his Esa astronaut certificate from Michel Tognini, head of the astronaut corps

Remember, all those UK-born individuals who have flown to date have done so on private programmes (Sharman, Garriott) or as US citizens (Foale, Sellers, Patrick).

The closest thing to a government-sponsored Brit in orbit was when four forces personnel trained as Skynet payload assistants for shuttle flights in the 1980s. Sadly, they lost their chance in the fall-out from the Challenger accident.

So, Major Tim flies the flag. Literally? And when? Well, there are worst-case and best-case scenarios.

All are set against the background of the US retiring its seven-seat shuttles next year, reducing the flight opportunities for all nations' astronauts. From then on, the three-seat Russian Soyuz is going to be the sole route to orbit for several years ahead.

The next three European opportunities to go into space are already spoken for: Paolo Nespoli (Italy) goes to the ISS in the next few weeks; Roberto Vittori (Italy) will launch on the final Endeavour shuttle flight in February; and Andre Kuipers (Netherlands) will go to the ISS on a Soyuz at the end of 2011.

These are what you might call the "old-guard" astronauts: the agency's veterans.

How long will it be before a new generation of American capsules is introduced?

Once their missions are done, the baton is almost certainly going to be passed to the Class of 2010 - Tim Peake and his five fellow astronaut rookies: Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy), Alexander Gerst (Germany), Andreas Mogensen (Denmark), Luca Parmitano (Italy), and Thomas Pesquet (France).

The earliest any one of them can get into orbit will be the May of 2013. This assignment has got to go to an Italian because it is a flight granted to the country as an in-kind payment for its production of the MPLMs.

The Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules have been the packing boxes that shuttles have used these past eight years to take supplies up to the space station. It was a clever barter agreement the Italian space agency (Asi) organised for itself with the Americans.

It means that either Luca Parmitano or Samantha Cristoforetti would be expected to be the first to fly.

The next opportunity is a 2014 flight to the ISS. This is part of Esa's entitlement as an 8% space station partner. It has a right to fly one of its astronauts on the platform for a period of six months, every two years.

The third opportunity, in 2015, is another of the Asi-guaranteed slots (guaranteed to an Italian national).

Beyond 2015, no opportunities have been set in stone but on the current schedule, there ought to be at least a further two Esa-nominated seats on a rocket before the decade's end, perhaps in 2017 and 2019.

Now, there is a cynical view out there that says Major Tim must be at the back of the queue simply because he's British.

The French and Germans, who pay most towards the space station programme, will ensure "their people" go first - so the argument goes. But there is good reason to believe such pessimism is skewed.

For one thing, France and Germany are not the European Space Agency - there are 16 other member states, eight of whom also contribute to the ISS programme.

Tim Peake

Major Tim is prepared to play the long game

If France and Germany were really that persuasive, Major Tim would never have been selected in the first place. He's there because he's good - because he was an "exceptional candidate", as one Esa official involved in his selection told me.

In addition, there are noises that the flight opportunities can be increased.

Russia currently produces four Soyuz vehicles a year. The ISS partners are talking about increasing the production to five a year.

This is a prospect which could pay particular dividends for the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese, the three "junior partners" on the ISS, because their flight opportunities will never match those of the Americans and Russians.

This option has its complications, however. More astronauts at the station means a greater requirement for supplies. That would have to be managed carefully. Not all of the robotic freighters scheduled to take stores to the ISS this decade have proved their capability.

The other scenario that could increase particularly European flight opportunities is if the current six-month residencies Esa enjoys at the platform are split into two stays of three months.

And whatever your feelings about the course taken by US spaceflight policy in recent months, it is possible that the Americans will have introduced at least one new commercial crew taxi service by 2016, perhaps even two new vehicles.

Major Tim is philosophical. He knows the score, but tells me he's definitely in for the long haul:

"The space industry takes peaks and troughs, and in some respects the six new astronauts joined in something of a trough, with the cancellation of the US Constellation programme and the retirement of the shuttles. But it is like everything: you look to the future. Commercial transportation is a very exciting venture; there is the potential for Soyuz production to increase, and for the life expectancy of the ISS to be increased. The situation is quite optimistic. People are now looking not just to ISS but to the next step in the 2020s."


UK takes 'open source' route into space

Jonathan Amos | 16:50 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


The fundamental barrier to greater space activity is the cost of access.

If people didn't have to part with squillions to get up there, far more spacecraft would go into orbit than is currently the case. And it's a problem that amplifies itself as well.

UKube artist's impression

UKube-1 will be some 30cm in length

High launch prices drive the need for big, rigorously tested spacecraft. They have to be that way because when you've paid so much to launch, you have to make damn sure your bird works. In-orbit failure is simply unthinkable. Add in insurance premiums and licences and the costs spiral still further.

It works against innovation, too. Taking risks is, well, risky. So doing space is a process that is necessarily conservative. If only we could lower launch costs, the spiral might unwind; there would be more opportunity and hopefully even greater innovation.

So while we wait for the truly reusable, low-cost launch vehicle, what's to be done?

Well, some have gone down the CubeSat route - the roughly 1kg, 10cm-square boxes that come in standard form and can be launched en-masse as secondary passengers on rockets.

It's an approach that can dramatically reduce a mission bill. We're talking tens to a few hundred thousand pounds as opposed to tens to a few hundred million pounds.

The compact boxes are proper spacecraft, just in miniature. They have a structure, solar panels, onboard processing, attitude control, comms and - increasingly - very capable payloads.

It's a challenge of course to do missions where the available power is measured in the odd watt, but we know from our mobile phones just how much function can be packed into a very small space.

And in CubeSats now, teams are trying to do many of the same things that have always been done in space - astronomy, Earth observation, space weather studies, microgravity and biology experiments, technology demonstration, etc.

CubeSats will never be a match for their multi-tonne cousins, but they do represent a more inclusive kind of space activity where far more people could realistically get involved in a project.

Conceived a little over 10 years ago in California, CubeSats are now being developed and flown around the globe.


The Indian PSLV is a regular CubeSat carrier

Britain, it is probably true to say, has been a bit behind the curve on this one, which is why the UKube-1 (pron: "You-Cube-One") initiative is most welcome.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has issued an Announcement of Opportunity [80KB PDF] to interested parties who'd like to fly instruments on a British CubeSat set to launch late next year.

Up to three payloads from UK-based providers will be selected for the flight.

They will go in a spacecraft called a "3U", which is essentially three 10cm CubeSats joined end to end.

Funded by UKSA, the Technology Strategy Board and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UKube-1 project is being led by the Glasgow company Clyde Space and EADS Astrium (who've made some of biggest satellites ever flown in  space).

You could call Craig Clark, the CEO of Clyde Space, something of an evangelist for CubeSats.

His company makes and sells CubeSat components, and these items don't just go into "smalltown" university-built boxes.

Clyde kit is going in the CubeSats of major US programmes run by the Army, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Science Foundation and Nasa. Go Glasgow! Craig told me:

"CubeSats are a rapidly growing area and we've been involved almost since the beginning. It's really about getting access to space, and the way CubeSats are launched makes that much easier. Everything is standard, which means you can go on to our website and buy a power system and solar panels with your credit card. It's got to that level. We do all that, including batteries and comms systems, but we also do a pulse plasma thruster - a propulsion system for a CubeSat. And we're developing the platform for UKube with Strathclyde University.
"It's great that the UK Space Agency should now get involved in CubeSats. The Americans may be much further ahead in using them but we've got such good capability in our universities and small companies that it's ideal for us. It fits the British way of doing things.
"There's huge potential and so many ideas out there. We've been looking at imaging systems. It's definitely within the realms of technology today to have sub-three-metre [resolution] imaging from a 3kg satellite. That's the kind of stuff we should be doing in the UK"

To give you an idea of how cute some of this stuff is, Imperial College London is involved in a US CubeSat project called Cinema which may launch around the same time as UKube.

Imperial's Magic sensor

The Magic sensor head is tiny

Imperial is famous for its magnetometers - instruments that can trace the magnetic fields that shape space plasmas. It was an Imperial-led magnetometer team working on the Cassini mission that made the sensational discovery of an atmosphere at Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Well, Imperial has developed a tiny magnetometer called Magic for CubeSat applications. You can see the size of the sensor head (picture right) that sits out on the end of a boom. It weighs just 3g. Cinema will study space weather - the phenomenon that arises when the stream of charged particles billowing away from the Sun crashes into Earth's magnetic shield.

The AO on UKube-1 is open until 8 December. The launch is likely to be on an Indian PSLV. The hope is that UKube-1 will be followed by UKube-2, 3, 4, 5, etc in subsequent years. Dr Ronan Wall, from Astrium, in the UKube programme manger:

"That's certainly the vision - the idea is that you would have different universities or companies building them so that they could all have a go. The hope is that it would lead to more payloads coming into the space industry; we'd have new supply chains. If we embrace 'open source space', stuff will just happen, innovation will just happen, in a way that large formulaic programmes militate against. We can stick new electronics on CubeSats and just see what happens. It's a playground for innovation."

The UK space sector's size and health

Jonathan Amos | 10:21 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Some reflections on the report of the week - the "Size and Health" study of the UK space sector [1MB PDF]. I didn't get a chance on Monday; I was too busy filing the story itself for the BBC News website and Radio 4.

The top line certainly made for impressive reading. Average annual growth is running at about 10% a year; employment is rising at nearly 15%. Total revenues top more than £7.5bn.

It is the sort of performance you'd expect in the Chinese economy. 

Avanti Communications' Hylas-1 satellite is due in orbit at the end of the month

People not familiar with space activity, or who don't appreciate the influence space now has on their lives, might have been surprised. Those who have followed the sector for some time were just pleased to see the momentum maintained.

But I wanted for this post just to dip below the headlines and pick up some issues that I think are worth noting.

One concerns the nature of the downstream values - £6.6bn.

That they are racing ahead of upstream revenues (£930m) is not a major surprise, and in many respects is as it should be. What is the point of space technology (upstream) if you're not going to develop services (downstream) and create wealth?

Chart showing downstream business sectors


And in companies like BSkyB, Pace, Inmarsat, and Arqiva - the UK has some champion space services companies.

But sitting in the Inmarsat control room on Monday I asked the question: are we comfortable to characterise the UK space sector as super-successful when its revenues are so dominated by the monies earned from selling subscriptions to watch TV channels; and by one company in particular?

Some 68% of the £6.6bn in downstream revenue is satellite broadcasting, with BSky the overwhelmingly dominant player.

Richard Peckham, from EADS Astrium (satellite manufacturer) and chairman of the trade group UK Space, understood my question and had this response:

"There's certainly a danger if it becomes dominated by one company, but I don't think it does. There're a number of quite large companies like Arqiva, and like Inmarsat in the telecoms sector. That sector is the most mature market, so you would expect those to be the biggest players because they've been around the longest. So, I think the secret is we've really got to see the other parts growing, too. So we expect in the telecoms sector that broadband internet will grow. Sat-nav and Earth observation - we would also expect to see growing rapidly in the next decade."

Some of the messages I have been receiving by mail and twitter have gone along the lines of "that's all great but government needs to invest more in upstream space activity".

Certainly, government will be judged on the decisions it makes upstream - but not wholly, according to Richard Peckham.

It has a duty also to manage regulation better so that growth is not impeded. It needs to champion exports. And, yes, it needs to procure - it needs to buy space infrastructure; and it needs to invest in R&D and support space science.

David Willetts wouldn't be drawn on Monday about the settlement that the UK Space Agency (UKSA) would receive from 2011. When I suggested the Size and Health report probably justified the agency coming out "better than average" in the carve-up of research funds, he responded that UKSA already had. His reasoning being that science in general was given a "flat cash" future in the CSR when many other areas of government activity had taken deep cuts.

Wayne Rooney

Space technology gave the English Premiership the platform to become a major success  

However much money government spends, it has to get bang for its buck. We'll get an excellent example of that in a couple of weeks when the Hylas-1 spacecraft goes into orbit from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

Europe's first satellite dedicated to the delivery of broadband internet services is privately financed but carries a payload from a European Space Agency R&D programme that was funded by the British government.

Hopefully, this will be another of those small upstream investments that results in large downstream earnings which will swell the next Size and Health report.

One interesting piece of news from Monday was Mr Willetts' statement of support once again for the potential of a national Earth observation service. This is something I've written about on a few occasions recently. It would involve government aggregating all its EO needs into a one-stop-shop request to industry, which would then build and run a series of satellites. The spare capacity not used by Britain would be sold on the open market.

The feasibility work is being done now and the science minister remains positive about the outcome:

"It's something that we're working on, and I'm very much hoping that at Harwell we can have national centre so that all the different ways in which different government departments collect data can be brought together to achieve maximum efficiency. But, look - this is ultimately not really a government agenda. This is a diverse sector where excellent science, really enterprising businesses and access to finance in the city of London is creating a success story."

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David Willetts

Science Minister David Willetts in the "hot seat" at the Inmarsat control room in London

One giant leap for 'tin mankind'

Jonathan Amos | 19:58 UK time, Friday, 5 November 2010


It's not just the Discovery shuttle's six human astronauts who face an extra three-week wait to get into orbit. Their mechanical passenger is clenching his fists in frustration, also


Nasa has big plans for R2 but first the humanoid robot has to "earn its stripes" 

Packed in a box in the back of the orbiter is R2, the first human-like robot to be sent into space.

The robonaut is the product of 15 years' research in Nasa and General Motors.

In his current guise, he is just a head, arms, and a torso mounted on a pedestal. But the plan eventually is to give R2 some legs to let him move around the station. And in a couple of years, he'll also get a body upgrade that should significantly advance his capabilities.

The expectation is that before the decade is out, this robot will be clambering about on the outside of the space station, assisting astronauts on a spacewalk.

How realistic the computer graphics of this prospect really are, I don't know. The video artist clearly was a fan of the Boba Fett bounty-hunter from Star Wars. The visors are uncannily similar.

But, anyway - first things first. In R2's initial year in orbit, he will be confined to the station's Destiny lab, working away at a taskboard placed in front of him.

He has to demonstrate the full range of his dextrous capabilities, picking up and moving items, throwing latches and switches, and handling soft materials like cloth that have traditionally been problematic for robotic systems.

R2 also has to prove he is safe to have around. Rob Ambrose is the acting chief of the automation, simulation and robotics division in the engineering department at Nasa's Johnson Space Center:

"Superficially R2 is soft, padded and safe. Mechanically it is soft as well with springs. But deeper than that, it has three levels of electrical sensors and software, which can in each of the three levels identify forces that are being felt by the robot and decide if those forces are safe or not and stop the robot, if necessary. Those three levels of safety were essential in convincing our payload safety review panel that this robot would be safe to work adjacent to astronauts inside the space station."
R2 description


You've probably seen pictures of astronauts in the weightless surroundings of the station picking up fridge-sized metal boxes and moving them around as if they're made of cardboard.

They're not, of course; and a 100kg of box can do a quite a bit of harm if it's not handled properly. R2's behaviour has to be predictable but sufficiently reactive that he doesn't persist with a task where to do so might result in the robot damaging equipment or, worse still, crushing an astronaut.

On the ground, you see this reactive behaviour when someone walks into the robot's path. If his arms collide with an unexpected object, they immediately pause - they don't keep pushing regardless of the obstruction. But that's on Earth; how will these types of systems really work in space where the gravity loads are so different?

R2 will help engineers understand this sort of thing.

Certainly, the future looks bright for human-like robots. They will not only work alongside astronauts as humans push out across the Solar System, it is highly likely they will lead the way.

Who'd like to bet the first thing with two legs to walk on Mars will be mechanical, not human?

And, surely, that's particularly true of the more hostile locations one would eventually want to visit, like those fascinating moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

We wouldn't risk sending a human down to the surface of Europa with its unbelievably harsh radiation environment; we'd send a robot with legs to climb over the ice boulders and to use its dextrous hands to pick objects of interest. Rob Ambrose again:

"There are really three phases of exploration. The first phase is where the robots are really out ahead of the humans. The second phase is when the humans are at the same site as the robots, working alongside them. Typically these two phases will be short - of the order of weeks or months. And then, in between human crews going back to that site or never going back to that site, the robots would be left behind as caretakers, to run longer-term experiments."

Feel free to recall you favourite sci-fi robots. I still have a major soft spot for Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running. I think that's because I have dogs and those little guys were like Bruce Dern's pets. Humans project personalities on to animals and objects. That's what we do. It will be no different for robots in space.

"At this point we have no plans for R2 to come back to Earth. I can't say what the future will hold. It may ride the station into the Pacific, but we don't know where station might go someday. That chapter in robonaut's life has not been written yet. We might take R2 beyond low-Earth. It's got to earn its stripes first."

R2 is currently discovering the frustration all humans have got used to with shuttle launches - delays due to technical glitches. Clive Simpson, the editor of Spaceflight magazine, is one of many who've been waiting around at Kennedy this week for Discovery to get off the ground.

He found R2's "brother" trying to pass the time and sent me a picture.  


R2's brother with a little light reading as he waits for the launch


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