Archive for Space

Inspiration Mars?

As you may already be aware, I love space. I have always loved space and I imagine I will continue to do so. Unfortunately, I was born 19 years after humanity set foot on the Moon. While I missed out, I am aware of the huge impact this had, the technology and inspiration from this mission is still felt today. But last week, something changed, a press conference was announced and rumours started flying of a manned mission to Mars in 2018. This was the stuff of dreams, could this announcement by my Kennedy’s “we choose to go the Moon…” speech, was I about to get swept up in my version of Apollo fever. It was certainly starting to look that way.

Header image for Inspiration MarsThe press conference was being held by the first space tourist, multi-millionaire Dennis Tito. He was presenting a ‘mission for America’ something that involved a technical paper he was releasing on March 3rd. This paper looked at the feasibility of taking a two person crew on a fly by of Mars and returning them safely to Earth. Amazingly the paper showed that, using current technology, this mission was entirely possible. Exploring even further showed that engineers and experts worldwide were agreeing, thanks to a special alignment of the planets, we could in fact get to Mars and back, using current rockets in 501 days.

With news like this you can see why I was excited for the press conference. As buzz built my colleagues and I prepared at work for a busy couple of days after the conference. Press statements were made and arrangements for media crews to join us on Wednesday night to film our reactions to the announcement. So with 5 of us sat in front of the big screen at work, the conference began.

The panellists ready to make their announcement to the world

Inspiration Mars panel (left to right): Dennis Tito, Taber MacCallum, Jonathon Clark & Jane Poynter

Dennis Tito was sat with colleagues and co-authors of the paper in front of the gathered press to make a history changing announcement. It all started very positive. Tito stated without a waver in his voice that while great progress in robotic missions had been made, human spaceflight have flagged behind. His intention with the Inspiration Mars Foundation is to ‘bridge the gap between the International Space Station and the upcoming SLS/Orion missions. It was a non-commercial mission that would serve to inspire future generations to push them selves to the edge of what was possible. He then said “We are launching January 5th 2018″… Wow! This was it, we were going, despite all the odds and the naysayers, that is what he said, ‘we are launching’ not we ‘might‘ be launching. One for the history books, my cap is doffed for you Dennis!

But wait, almost as quickly as he stated we were going, he followed it up with possibly the most damning statement of any project. “I will personally fund the mission until 2014.” Now this statement might seem positive enough, but if you read between the lines (and listen to what he then proceeded to say) it became very clear that they have a severe shortage of cash! This went from being the biggest news to being something we will probably have all forgotten about in a few weeks. They were looking for investors. Sigh.

An artists impression of Mars.

This fake Mars is about as far as you will get on only two years funding. (Also why didn’t they use a real picture of Mars?)

So that was it, with one fell swoop, one measly sentence I began to lose interest, why have we gathered everyone here, there is no mission just some rich persons pipe dream. But that wasn’t the end of this debacle…oh no, grab your popcorn because it gets more interesting.

The subtitle, “A mission for America” didn’t quite sit right, until the latter half of the press conference. As it happens, Dennis Tito is very much a man of his age. He made it very clear and almost outright said it, this was an American mission, to launch and American rocket crewed by American astronauts (presumably to an American Mars? see picture above). They were not looking for help from other countries, this was revealed after a good 60 seconds of awkward shuffling when asked about other countries. I find this quite frankly bewildering. Let’s ignore for a moment that space travel is slowly but surely getting more and more international (16 countries involved in the ISS), let’s ignore the ultimate aim for worldwide collaboration and acceptance, but let’s instead concentrate on Tito.

You see Dennis is most well known for being the first space tourist, but back during his attempt to buy a ticket he was flat out refused by, guess who, America! NASA didn’t want anything to do with him, in the end it was the Russians who agreed to train him and fly him up there, in fact there were serious discussion about banning Tito from the american section of the ISS! WTF! And here he is, for want of a better word, ‘pissing’ all over that relationship, just to push the “America the great” viewpoint of old.

Dennis Tito in the Russian Soyuz that took him into space

Dennis sitting next to a RUSSIAN cosmonaut, climbing out of a RUSSIAN Soyuz!

Now i am not a savvy business man, but holding a conference in which you are attempting to secure investors and then outright saying that you only want American involvement seems like a small misstep to me. A quick look at the Forbes rich list shows that of the 100 richest billionaires only 36 of them are American, now yes, ok any one of those 36 could pay for the mission with no problems, but cutting 64 other very rich people out of the deal seems very short-sighted, especially when the only donation you have had so far was $10 from a 6-year old (probably made up for emotional marketing nonsense).

Armfuls o Cash!

Current estimates suggest Tito will provide $100 million out of the possible $2 billion they need. You need more Tito!

The overall feeling after this conference is a massive sense of disappointment, it had a huge potential, but that seems to have disappeared. This complex, time-sensitive mission needed to have all the parts in place from the get go to succeed, and currently this one doesn’t have the most important part. Not only that but Tito has potentially soured some relationships with the dated way he shunned collaboration.

As it stands I feel there is literally no chance that this mission will even get off the ground. As far as I am concerned this is just some rich mans dream, maybe I will sit and design a mission to colonise Mars there will be swimming pools and blackjack and a theatre for Las Vegas style shows, I can do it for $1 Trillion dollars, of which I have no doubt I can raise. You would say I’m mad, but this is exactly what Tito has said and he like me has no money to get his project started. Maybe  I will be surprised, maybe there are some rich American people who share similar views and maybe they will pay for Tito’s American eagle to make Mars the red in the Star Spangled Banner.

Tidy up Time in Space

Here is another MSN UK Space Blog i wrote. This looked at the topic of space debris. It was originally written as a topical piece, but i think the content is still relevant. Enjoy.

The last 54 years of space exploration has resulted in many great achievements for mankind. We have networks of satellites that can relay live video streams anywhere on the planet, space based systems that can pinpoint your exact location, global disaster warning and response systems and we even managed to land people on the Moon. Despite these considerable successes so far, space exploration shows no sign of slowing down, with even more countries such as China and India massively increasing their presence in space. However these amazing feats are not without consequence.

The area surrounding our planet is now littered with a cloud of debris, junk and artefacts from our continued forays into space. From spent rocket stages to old satellites the near-Earth space environment has become a very messy region. This was further exacerbated by the collision of two satellites in 2009 and the testing of a Chinese anti-satellite missile in 2007. These events nearly doubled the amount of debris being monitored. There have been calls for a long time to consider the implications of space junk and to start implementing plans to tidy it up.

This culminated with a recent report by the American National Research Council which stated that the level of space debris is currently at a “tipping point”. The report then goes to highlight the dangers that could be faced by current and new space missions if nothing is done to reduce the amount of space junk.

Image showing the amount of space debris.

We have a lot of rubbish around the earth, although this image makes it look slightly worse than it is.

Debris in space poses a great risk to objects in the near-Earth space environment. This risk is a result of the high velocity that these objects are moving round the Earth, turning these objects into potentially dangerous projectiles. These projectiles, often only a few millimetres across, can cause massive damage to anything they collide with.

This damage can result in the malfunction or even pre-emptive decommission of satellites in orbit. The crew of the ISS have had two near emergencies as a result of potential collisions with space debris in just this year. At one point, the crew even prepared to evacuate as the risk of collision was seen as too high.

With a continued desire for the human exploration of space and the increasing reliance on satellite technology it is clear that this issue of space debris needs to be addressed. There have been many suggestions of potential solutions but currently there isn’t a solid decision on the best course of action.

The suggested solutions range from giant nets designed to catch the debris for safe removal from orbit, to shooting debris with lasers to change the path of the objects such that they would re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. Unfortunately these and similar solutions are merely doodles on the pads of some of the worlds leading science think-tanks and will require rapid implementation to restore safety to our space environment.

As we wait for the solution to the space junk crisis careful monitoring of the debris will continue to ensure safe working conditions in our near-Earth space environment.

Bang for your Buck!

As the title suggests you guys are getting some bang for your buck today! Another post for you, this one is another of my MSN UK Space Blogs. I really enjoyed writing this one and it has one of my favourite ‘factoids’ regarding science funding in the UK. This was originally posted back on the 18 November, but the content is still relevant. Enjoy!

UK Science gets Bang! for it’s buck.

On Tuesday 15 November 2011 we saw Dr. James Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, present a statement of concern to the White House. In his discussion he spoke of the success of the space program to date, ‘NASA spacecraft have visited every planet in our solar system, as well as many of the variety of small bodies such as comets and asteroids that have much to tell us about the solar system’s formation.’, but urged the committee that continued investment was imperative to future success’, especially when considering the ambitious plans to return material from other planets for analysis.

In the recent global economic downturn a request for more funding often seems misguided and provokes questioning surrounding the ‘value’ of particular areas of funding. One area that often suffers harsh critique and questioning is the one of science research, specifically the field of space exploration.  This could be a result of it being seen as a luxury and the general public can sometimes feel that there are more important areas that should receive increased funding.

While avoiding the debate as to what areas deserve the most funding I would like to take the opportunity to investigate and postulate some reasons as to why space exploration is given the funding it is. One thing to note is the total cost of space exploration; here in the UK we spend around £270million pounds a year on our involvement in space. Now this seems like a huge sum of money especially when you compare it to the value of your house, but these sums of money are relative.  So if we instead compare the bill to something more significant, say healthcare, the numbers become a lot more revealing. Many people agree that the NHS is pretty good and deserves its funding, and I have on several occasions faced the argument, “What’s the point in going into space when we can’t even keep people well on earth?”, so let’s consider diverting all the money from space research and exploration in the UK to healthcare. TheUKspace programme’s funding would run the NHS for less than a day! If we compare it to something else, space funding in theUKwould pay approximately 4% of the unemployment benefit paid out each year in this country.

The point I would like to reinforce here is not one about government spending, I mentioned before that I am not questioning the funding in any of these areas; it’s important that all areas get some degree of funding. It is important to note that the UK is very efficient with its funding of the space industry.  As a country we stand as one of the forerunners in many areas of space research, yet we achieve this on a very tiny budget. This is something to be very proud of as a nation.

[NigeraiSat-2, Built by UK engineers at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. Image Credit:]

Another point I would like to raise is that space exploration is often seen as being done just because we can. While I think this fact, coupled with an inbuilt curiosity, does drive us to investigate and explore space, science research can have a major impact on areas not directly related to that being investigated. Examples of this include robotic surgery, the artificial heart pump and imaging methods used to decipher ancient artefacts, all of these have come almost directly from technology developed by NASA. Even the World Wide Web as we know it originally began life as a method for sharing scientific data generated at CERN, this was augmented by a project Tim Berners-Lee was developing and we get the point-and-click experience that we are now familiar with.

In summary it should be reiterated that the purpose of this article is not to try to convince the reader that science should be funded above all else, as mentioned previously, funding for all areas is important. The goal is to highlight that space research can have some unexpected offshoots as well as helping us pursue mankind’s curiosity and desire for exploration and knowledge. The UK space industry generates over £7.5 billion and employs close to 100,000 people in direct and related jobs. As an industry it is incredibly efficient, taking a very small income and turning it into world leading knowledge, opportunities and products. We are the world’s experts in satellite technology, and compete very highly in many other areas of space research and exploration. We should appreciate and be proud of the fact that even on a tiny budget theUKspace industry is one of the best in the world.

The real Dragon rises!

As I am sure many of you aware, history was made this weekend. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. This is a landmark achievement for them and I imagine the team, is insanely proud of themselves (I know I would be). The fact remains that the saga isn’t over yet, the capsule still has to detach safely and return to Earth for the test to be a complete test, but I think most people agree that the biggest hurdle has been overcome.

I am finding this developing arm of the space industry fascinating, the idea of the competition that will be in the private sector almost hints at the emotion that drove Man to the moon back in the 60′s. I think we may be on the cusp of seeing a real explosion of space technology to develop as several of these big companies really start competing for contracts and the recognition of achieving landmark goals first. SpaceX clearly have a small advantage but a couple of organizations are nipping at their heels, such as Orbital Sciences who also have a contract to resupply the ISS. I think we are in interesting times for the space industry.

Below you will find the most recent blog entry I wrote for the MSN UK ‘Exploring Space’ Blog. This was posted after the launch of the Falcon rocket but before the docking took place. As a side not you may notice that some of the MSN articles I post will be slightly outdated, especially while I upload the back catalogue,  so please go look at their site. But I would also love if you read the articles here and let me know your thoughts. So here is the article.


Dragon Rising!

SpaceX was the first company to put a privately built spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. The company’s CEO took this even further. He declared he wanted to be the first company to put an astronaut into orbit.

Lift off of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule.

3, 2, 1 - We have lift off!

On Tuesday 22 May they moved one step closer to their goal. Lift off of their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule combination took place at 8:44am (BST). This is a demonstration mission that culminates in the docking of the capsule with the International Space Station (ISS). If successful this will be another first for SpaceX, being the first privately built spacecraft to dock with the station, If all goes to plan this mission will start an era whereby the ISS will be by private companies. SpaceX already holds a contract with NASA to provide the cargo transport for the station but the success of this mission is vital to show that SpaceX is up to the job of successfully transporting human crew.

Over the next four days the orbiting capsule will go through a series of maneuverability tests and system checks. These are designed to check that the capsule is functioning as expected and intended. Once these checks have been performed SpaceX will be given permission to allow Dragon to drift within 10 meters of the ISS. After the capsule has reached this distance the astronauts on board the space station will grab the capsule using one of the robotic arms. This will pull the capsule into the docking position. This method has been used twice before, for the capture of two Japanese supply craft.

SpaceX have worked hard over the last 10 years to achieve the bold goals they have set for themselves; already looking to develop crew transports, heavy lifters and even looking towards a Mars capable craft, but it hasn’t been an easy ride.

Timelapse of the Flacon 9 rocket's lift off.

A path to the heavens

SpaceX suffered a few minor setbacks during the development of their first rocket, the Falcon 1, with engine issues resulting in one lost vehicle and two other unsuccessful missions. Development of the current rocket, Falcon 9, has been a lot more successful with only minor setbacks concerning some of the systems and safety precautions on board providing any resistive forces.

The launch on Tuesday represents a rapid recovery from an aborted launch attempt just a few days earlier on the 19 May. This abort was caused when one of the engines was not operating as expected, this resulted in an automatic shut down and launch abort. The issue was then investigated and measures were taken to resolve the problem, which led them to a successful launch on Tuesday.

As this mission gets off to a flying start it marks the beginning of a period of intense worry and frustration. The Dragon capsule needs to perform well in the subsequent tests to ensure it gets to make its mark of becoming the first commercial capsule to dock with the ISS.

We will be watching this mission very carefully and wish SpaceX the best of luck.

Written by Josh Barker, Presenter at the National Space Centre.