Chinese satellite makes a move

11 11 2010

According to a story reported yesterday by the Associated Press, China has demonstrated nimble maneuvering of its satellites in orbit, a feat few other nations have been able to achieve.

The rendezvous between two of its orbiting craft, which occurred on August 19 and was not declared by China but was instead observed by international tracking stations, has set off alarm in some circles.  This capability must be employed by China in order to successfully launch and dock with their future proposed space laboratories, yet it may also double as the ability to intercept and sabotage enemy satellites and spacecraft.

Regardless of the potential military applications, the certain reality is that China’s space program is moving ahead at a determined pace.  This demonstration of their growing space capabilities is another reinforcement of just how serious they are about becoming a player in the future utilization of space.

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Orbital Tugs shove their way into reality

15 06 2010

Russian Space Tug, "Parom." Credit: Vassili Petrovich

With the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle and the rise of corporate launch spacecraft, private companies are starting to think seriously about the next logical steps – orbital infrastructure.  A few of them have even zeroed in on the next target in the business case by identifying a capability we don’t have: Orbital Tugs.

What do I mean by an “Orbital Tug”?  -It’s a utility spacecraft designed to go to orbit and stay there to help with orbital logistics.  This includes things like intercepting payloads lofted to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) and moving them to where they need to be, be it a higher orbit (saving on launch costs), the International Space Station, a rendesvous with another spacecraft or space station (Bigelow modules?), or even to someplace farther out like a Lagrange Point (gravitationally-stable points around and between the Earth and Moon.)  Add to this the potential of tugs to offer service contracts to companies and governments for the salvage, rescue, or refueling of existing orbiting satellites (communication, GPS, weather, reconnaissance, etc.,) and suddenly the prospect is a very profitable one.

Who needs a Shuttle when you can pay much less for a LEO rocket delivery and have a Space Tug do the rest?  Why build and launch a new satellite when you can pay a fraction and use a tug to extend the life of the one you already have in orbit?

Three views of the Parom Space Tug. Credit: Anatoly Zak

Several companies are in the queue to get a tug into space first.  Perhaps foremost amongst them is Russia’s S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation, Energia – the company responsible for the safest and most successful spacecraft of all time, Soyuz.  They’ve had a space tug on the books since late 2001, called Parom, which is intended to replace their Progress cargo module, (an unmanned version of Soyuz that currently delivers shipments of supplies to the International Space Station.)  The design of Parom is simple, based around a pressurized (i.e. habitable) cargo cylinder bracketed by two universal docking ports, one on each side.  With its own engines rated to move objects up to 30 tons and fuel transfer lines so that it may refuel itself from a resupply shipment or, in turn, refuel another spacecraft, station, or satellite, Parom is an ambitious craft completely based on existing technology.

Second on my list of potential Space Tugs is a nuclear-powered satellite servicing tug from a private American firm called IoStar – though recent scandals and infighting make me worry that bankruptcy is in the company’s future.  At the very least, a recent ruling against IoStar in favor of a former employee with allegedly “proprietary” information leads me to suspect an uphill battle – but I’m rooting for them.

SMART-OLEV. Credit: Orbital Satellite Services

Orbital Satellite Services is another private venture, based in Sweden, to keep your eyes on.  Their SMART-OLEV or Orbital Life Extension Vehicle, while not pressurized or as burly as the Parom, may be able to make that weight savings its best advantage and take the fast track to orbit as the first functional space tug.  SMART-OLEV is designed to target and dock with telecommunication satellites and extend their lifespans for up to 12 additional years by providing supplemental propulsion, navigation, and guidance.

Developing an orbital logistics infrastructure is the essential next step to the corporate development and utilization of space.  Godspeed, tug-builders.  Let’s get off this rock.





Give it a rest, people: Voyager 2 spacecraft not hijacked by aliens

13 05 2010

NASA is having a hard time talking to the Voyager 2 probe.  It started in late April and has only gotten worse, with the latest transmission being quite garbled.  Now, I can understand a bit of fun, tounge-in-cheek speculation, but this “Aliens have hijacked Voyager 2!” thing has gotten way out of hand.  It’s as though someone has been subliminally beaming the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture into everyone’s minds…

Voyager 6 spacecraft after being hijacked by aliens as seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Credit: Paramount

…and for the unwashed, the movie centers around a mysterious cloud of energy headed for Earth destroying everything in its path.  It is revealed in the final act of the film that the cloud is actually the probe Voyager 6, which according to future history was lost, and Kirk and crew learn that it was hijacked, reprogrammed, and empowered by aliens before being sent back.  Sound familiar?

No one (or should I say, nothing?) has “done” anything to the blasted spacecraft, people.  It’s getting old.  How many other 30-year-old computers do you know of that are still running perfectly? 

Yes, Hartwig Hausdorf (who first made the alien hijacking crack) is allowed his opinion.  Is it realistic?  Nope.  Let’s just hope this probe can be recovered… It’d be a pity to lose one of only two “eyes” we have moving out of the solar system for the first time.

Sheesh, I just wish real science got this much press.





Lockheed Martin returns to rocket fray

25 03 2010

Athena 1 rocket launching NASA payload in the late '90s. (Credit: NASA)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the commercial space transportation industry, and the news keeps pouring in.  Aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin announced today that the firm has decided to resurrect its canceled Athena-class of small-scale rockets.  Presumably sparked by the appearance of new competitors Orbital Sciences and SpaceX who are offering similar services, Lockheed has partnered up with heavy-hitter Alliant Techsystems, (a provider for NASA Space Shuttle and Ares rocket motors,) to dust off the Athena rocket plans, upgrade its upper-stage rocket motor, and begin offering flight services to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in 2012.

Competition like this is exactly what the industry needs — Ramp up innovation, drive down prices.  Private space development hasn’t been this active/exciting since the mid ’90s!








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