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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.

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.