In Space, Life Imitates Art

19 11 2010

Space Station Astronaut Tracy Dyson gazing back at Earth. (Credit: NASA)

When the now-famous image above, possibly the most romantic space exploration image ever taken, hit the net a few days ago, a similarity immediately struck me.   One of my favorite modern “romantic realist” artists, Bryan Larsen, painted a nearly identical, visionary image seven years ago, entitled, “How Far We’ve Come“:

Painting of a space station astronaut gazing back at Earth. (Credit: Bryan Larsen)

Not only is the similarity unbelievable, but both images invoke the same sense of beauty, wonder, and awe-inspired appreciation for what we’ve been able to achieve so far.  -Just something I felt compelled to point out.

For more from Larsen, check out his gallery at Quent Cordair Fine Art here.  There are a few additional space-inspired paintings in his offerings, as well.

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China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)





NewSpace Station-Race begins

1 10 2010

Rendering of the Commercial Space Station (CSS) with Soyuz space vehicle attached. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

This week has been pretty big for private space, (including astronomy / exoplanetology and development of space-related commercial products – more to come in future posts).

In something of a surprise announcement, Russian NewSpace startup Orbital Technologies announced a volley of corporate agreements and a proposed private, commercial space station to launch by the year 2015.

With what they call (unassumingly) the “Commercial Space Station,” or CSS, Orbital Technologies hopes to challenge Vegas space-habitat manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace‘s current monopoly on the private-space-station market.

Cutaway of the CSS. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

The proposed Russian CSS will rely on proven Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport and resupply (via Soyuz “Progress” cargo modification.)  In doing so, Orbital Technologies has (at least in concept) been able to leverage the most reliable spacecraft on Earth to date as part of their business model.  While there has been no evidence of “bent metal” so far, (unlike Bigelow, who already has two test modules in orbit,) the seriousness of the commercial relationships this company demonstrates out-of-the-gate makes them a definite contender.

In offering a space station along with Soyuz transportation to get there, Orbital Technologies is perhaps the only firm in direct competition with Bigelow Aerospace, which has partnered up with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to supply CST-100 space transports to Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats.

Not-so-coincidentally, Bigelow Aerospace also has a target launch date of 2015 for their first manned space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

The architecture of the CSS appears to be a single module, and options for expansion are not discussed in Orbital Technology’s literature, as opposed to the Bigelow Aerospace station, which is intentionally modular and expandable.

Power on the CSS is also an apparent issue, with no visible solar panels in the renderings supplied to-date — drawing power from a docked Soyuz spacecraft is an option.  (If true, this differs significantly from the Bigelow architecture, which includes onboard power for each module via solar arrays.)

Competition in a very real sense can only be a positive force for the development of destinations in space.  So, let the NewSpace Race begin.

It’s about time.





Hawking Space Exploration Paradox: Death or Enslavement

27 09 2010

Dr. Stephen Hawking. (Credit: Associated Press)

During the last six months, famed theoretical physicist and science oracle Dr. Stephen Hawking has proposed much to garner headlines.  (A suggestion that ‘universe creation’ may be a natural process comes to mind.)  However, when looking at the implications of his recent propositions, a hidden space exploration paradigm takes form.

It would seem that in Dr. Hawking’s best estimations, space exploration is inexorably linked to the struggle for humanity’s survival.  His astro-colonial challenge is framed between two opposing threats: The first is that if we do not learn to cooperate and start concerted space exploration and colonization, the human race will wipe itself out in two centuries; The second is that advanced alien life is certain to exist, and if we reveal ourselves to the extraterrestrial environment, such life will pose a threat to our civilization (a la War of the Worlds).

What does this mean?  Well, this might initially seem to imply a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” paradox, which I mentioned as this post’s title.  However, when developed further, the propositions have a deeper implication: A golden path between the chasms on either side.

By assessing Dr. Hawking’s admittedly apocalyptic predictions in reverse, he essentially states that we’ll make it if we create a synergy of earnest, cooperative space exploration and diligent, even paranoid SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) reconnaissance.  In doing so, we engender the maturity of our civilization on Earth, develop resource and environmental security for our perpetual existence about the Sun, and cultivate an advanced awareness of our stellar neighborhood – an early warning system for potentially threateneing ETIs (extraterrestrial intellegiences).

So, it’s possible he’s really saying that we have a shot.

The first step in evading threats is cultivating an awareness of them.  In that light, maybe that’s the reason he’s come out with these statements lately – to help us find the razor’s edge between self-destruction and galactic naivety.

Just a thought.





Humanity’s outpost in the sky

8 09 2010

ISS and Atlantis (docked) visible in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. 05/22/2010. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

A short note this morning on humanity in the cosmos.  In the above image, an outstanding French photographer managed to capture what otherwise would have whipped by in the blink of an eye.

Crop of the ISS and Atlantis (docked) in front of the Sun. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

For an instant on May 22nd, the International Space Station (ISS) and the docked Atlantis orbiter (space shuttle) moved between Earth and the Sun as they screamed past at colossal orbital speed (16,500 miles per hour).  Rapid photography, meticulous planning, and much skill managed to catch the fleeting moment.

(The ISS and shuttle are visible to the left of the Sun’s center, with the station’s long pairs of solar panels bracketing the shuttle on the left-hand side, its nose angled away.)

My point in posting this morning, aside from sharing the epic “gee-whiz” factor implicit in this photograph, is to try and bring home something about scale, the cosmos, and our place in it.

While looking at the awe-inspiring photo, try to realize that the point of view of the photo -the Earth’s surface- is nearly 250 miles away from the ISS, but the Sun’s backdrop is a full 93 million miles behind it.

Think about that for a moment.  Another way of looking at it is that the ISS is nearly 360 feet wide.  The sun behind it is 4,567,200,000 feet wide, (or 865,000 miles in width, more than 100 Earths across.)  How big is that?  How far away does that have to be?

-That’s like holding out a matchbox car at arm’s length in California and having it be dwarfed by something sitting in Russia.

The ISS, taken from Atlantis as it undocked on May 23, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When looking at the photo and realizing this immense reality of scale, the ISS’s cosmic ranking starts to come into perspective.  Even considering that the ISS is likely the most ambitious international effort ever attempted, (and by logical extension, arguably humanity’s most collectively ambitious project to date,) it is still clearly just the beginning of humanity’s toe-hold on the rest of the cosmos.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  (Thanks, Douglas…)  Ahem..

But seriously, maybe by looking at images like the above transit image by Theirry Legault and forcing your brain to accept what it knows to be true – that the station and all of its habitable space (roughly comparable to a 3,000 square-foot house) is just a speck, our entire Earth could be swallowed whole by the Sun without it even noticing, and our Sun is just a mediocre star amongst billions of burning brothers in the cosmos – we’ll all come to realize that we should really start moving out into the rest of the universe… just for safety’s sake.

We’re obviously really significant to ourselves.  Yet, to 99.999% of the rest of the universe, we haven’t even gotten into little league.  Metaphorically, no one knows we exist yet, and minor league players out there like asteroids and comets, (not to mention major league events like nearby supernovas,) can still easily wipe us out.

So, if we want a shot at winning the world series someday, (interpret the cosmic meaning of this increasingly threadbare analogy as you will,) we’d better start playing ball.

 

Artificial gravity and large-scale settlement space station designed by Wernher Von Braun. (Credit: Courtesy NASA/MSFC Historical Archives)





Dealing with space contamination

24 08 2010

Operation of LOCAD-PTS swabbing unit on the palm of a NASA spacesuit during simulated activities at Meteor Crater, Arizona; 09/2005. Credit: Dr. Jake Maule.

Planetary Protection, despite how it sounds, does not refer to a Bruce-Willis-style suicide mission to save Earth from an incoming asteroid.  However, it is one of those practical space exploration concerns that will only get more important with time.

So, what is planetary protection (PP)?

Think of it as the discipline of preventing the spread of interplanetary biological contamination, either from or to Earth, by astronauts, rovers, and anything else we might send between worlds.

For instance, what good is the search for life on another world if we actually deliver it there, (e.g., bacteria hitching a ride on the outside of a spacecraft) – or worse – if we accidentally contaminate the site and kill the life we’re looking for?

To this end, NASA scientists have been developing the LOCAD-PTS, which stands for Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System.  Much like a Star Trek “tricorder,” the handheld device includes an electronic swab wand and onboard processor designed for the rapid testing of biological substances.  In just 15 minutes, an analysis can be performed and contamination results delivered to a waiting astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams using the LOCAD aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A number of field tests have been performed with the system so far, with many actually performed in space on the International Space Station to determine how biological material is transferred from Earth to space, and to monitor the spread of that material while there.  Samples were taken both inside and outside the station.  Beyond contamination on the exterior of spacecraft being transported to another world, in a closed environment the movement of biological material is also important to ensure astronaut health.

Even better here is the famed NASA technology “trickle-down” effect.  The LOCAD system as tested by NASA will also be highly useful on Earth.

Applications of the LOCAD procedures and technology include not only science on Earth, but also detecting lethal viral outbreaks and helping first responders during a potential biological attack.

With the forethought of technology programs like this, not only will all worlds involved be kept more pristine, but any data gathered will be that much more defensible.  Here’s hoping that before too much longer, the offspring of the LOCAD will get to see some action off-world.





New Boeing spacecraft announced!

13 08 2010

Boeing's new CST-100 spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

Boeing has jumped into the lineup of new spacecraft vying to fill the Space Shuttle retirement gap with the recent announcement of the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft.

Similar in design to SpaceX‘s Dragon spacecraft, larger than NASA‘s Apollo Command Module spacecraft, but smaller than NASA’s canceled Orion spacecraft, (which may or may not end up serving as a lifeboat for the International Space Station,) the capsule-shaped CST-100 is designed to carry up to seven astronauts to low Earth orbit.  With a combination landing system comprised of both parachutes and airbags, the CST-100 can soft-land, swap heat shields, and be re-used up to ten times.

If that weren’t forward-enough planning, in what may be a business-model coup, the CST-100 is designed to mate with a great many existing rocket types, including Lockheed’s Atlas V, Boeing’s own Delta IV, and even SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

And, perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement is the fact that in addition to NASA as an intended end-user, Bigelow Aerospace is specifically named, including the below image of a CST-100 rendezvous with a future BA space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. Credit: Boeing

(Link here [YouTube] for a Boeing “B-Roll” video animation of the CST-100 transit to, docking, and undocking with a proposed Bigelow space station.)

With serious corporations working both ends toward the middle like this, and with both business models relying on the other, (space stations relying on craft to get people there, spacecraft requiring destinations to fly to,) a serious presence off-world is more likely than ever!  In all, a fantastic development for the commercial spacecraft as well as commercial space station industries.

Oh, and for the curious, the “100” in CST-100 conveniently refers to the 100-kilometer altitude that marks the “edge” of space.  This begs the question: Does the fact that a number is there imply we might see a CST-200 or CST-300K [lunar orbit] sometime in the future?  Interesting…








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