Tag Archive for: Space

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin on April 4 released the technical specifications of a docking adapter that could be used by manufacturers to make satellites interoperable and easier to update on orbit with new technology.

The technical data for the Mission Augmentation Port (MAP) can be used by designers to develop their own docking adapters, said Lockheed Martin.

The company used the MAP standard to design its own docking device, called Augmentation System Port Interface (ASPIN).

“With this technology, we’re able to upgrade operational spacecraft at the speed of technology,” said Paul Pelley, senior director of advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space.

“Just like USB was designed to standardize computer connections, these documents are designed to standardize how spacecraft connect to each other on orbit,” he said.

On-orbit satellite servicing usually is associated with refueling. That is just one aspect of life extension, Pelley said. There is also a need to keep satellites technologically up to date, especially large geosynchronous spacecraft that stay in service for decades. A standard docking port interface could facilitate the insertion of new processors, data storage devices or sensors, and some satellite components could be replaced with new hardware.

“What Lockheed Martin is envisioning goes beyond ‘filling up the tank’ to extend mission life,” he said.

Eric Brown, senior director of military space mission strategy at Lockheed Martin, said the company has tested the ASPIN adapter in simulations and plans to fly it to space to get it qualified. “We have multiple partners, both commercial and government, that are interested in taking that next step,” said Brown

He said Lockheed Martin decided to develop the docking interface standard and release it to fill a need in the industry.

Many satellites that are in operation today have 20 or 30-year old technology and there is no means to update them in orbit, he said. One answer to that problem is to go to cheaper, smaller satellites that are more disposable and launched more frequently. But that solution doesn’t work for everybody, Brown said.

Some missions require large satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, “and we still have to solve that technology refresh, these satellites are not disposable,” he said.

The vision that led to the MAP standard is that it could help create an aftermarket space industry that doesn’t exist today because satellites are not serviceable like airplanes, he said. In aerospace and defense, the aftermarket had created huge opportunities for a whole ecosystem of companies.

“Space has suffered from not really having an actionable aftermarket. And so by introducing the idea of satellite augmentation and enhancements we can also bring in the maintenance, repair and overhaul type of ecosystem that the air domain has enjoyed for years and years, and has introduced a lot of companies into aerospace and defense.” A space aftermarket “could be beneficial for Lockheed Martin but also beneficial for a variety of new companies that maybe aren’t in a position to build the next generation of GPS but may be able to go and fly sensors that can augment a GPS vehicle.”

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond. This month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft made the first fully-private, crewed flight to the International Space Station. The going price for a seat is US$55 million. The ticket comes with an eight-day stay on the space station, including room and board—and unrivaled views.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer cheaper alternatives, which will fly you to the edge of space for a mere US$250,000–500,000. But the flights only last between ten and 15 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy an in-flight snack.

But if you’re happy to keep your feet on the ground, things start to look more affordable. Over the past 20 years, advances in tiny satellite technology have brought Earth orbit within reach for small countries, private companies, university researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists.

Science in space

We are scientists who study our planet and the universe beyond. Our research stretches to space in search of answers to fundamental questions about how our ocean is changing in a warming world, or to study the supermassive black holes beating in the hearts of distant galaxies.

The cost of all that research can be, well, astronomical. The James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in December 2021 and will search for the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, had a final price tag of US$10 billion after many delays and cost overruns.

The price tag for the International Space Station, which has hosted almost 3,000 scientific experiments over 20 years, ran to US$150 billion, with another US$4 billion each year to keep the lights on.

Even weather satellites, which form the backbone of our space-based observing infrastructure and provide essential measurements for weather forecasting and natural disaster monitoring, cost up to US$400 million each to build and launch.

Budgets like these are only available to governments and national space agencies—or a very select club of space-loving billionaires.

Space for everyone

More affordable options are now democratizing access to space. So-called nanosatellites, with a payload of less than 10kg including fuel, can be launched individually or in “swarms.”

Since 1998, more than 3,400 nanosatellite missions have been launched and are beaming back data used for disaster response, maritime traffic, crop monitoring, educational applications and more.

A key innovation in the small satellite revolution is the standardization of their shape and size, so they can be launched in large numbers on a single rocket.

CubeSats are a widely used format, 10cm along each side, which can be built with commercial off-the-shelf electronic components. They were developed in 1999 by two professors in California, Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, who wanted graduate students to get experience designing, building and operating their own spacecraft.

Twiggs says the shape and size were inspired by Beanie Babies, a kind of collectable stuffed toy that came in a 10cm cubic display case.

Commercial launch providers like SpaceX in California and Rocket Lab in New Zealand offer “rideshare” missions to split the cost of launch across dozens of small satellites. You can now build, test, launch and receive data from your own CubeSat for less than US$200,000.

The universe in the palm of your hand

One project we are involved in uses CubeSats and machine learning techniques to monitor Antarctic sea ice from space. Sea ice is a crucial component of the climate system and improved measurements will help us better understand the impact of climate change in Antarctica.

Sponsored by the UK-Australia Space Bridge program, the project is a collaboration between universities and Antarctic research institutes in both countries. Naturally, we called the project IceCube.

Small satellites are starting to explore beyond our planet, too. In 2018, two nanosatellites accompanied the NASA Insight mission to Mars to provide real-time communication with the lander during its decent. In May 2022, Rocket Lab will launch the first CubeSat to the Moon as a precursor to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by 2024.

Tiny satellites are changing the way we explore our planet and beyond.

Tiny spacecraft have even been proposed for a voyage to another star. The Breakthrough Starshot project wants to launch a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft each centimeters in size to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away. Propelled by ground-based lasers, the spacecraft would “sail” across interstellar space for 20 or 30 years and beam back images of the Earth-like exoplanet Proxima Centauri b.

Small but brilliant

With advances in miniaturization, satellites are getting ever smaller.

“Picosatellites,” the size of a can of soft drink, and “femtosatellites,” no bigger than a computer chip, are putting space within reach of keen amateurs. Some can be assembled and launched for as little as a few hundred dollars.

A Finnish company is experimenting with a more sustainably built CubeSat made of wood. And new, smart satellites, carrying computer chips capable of artificial intelligence, can decide what information to beam back to Earth instead of sending everything, which dramatically reduces the cost of phoning home. Getting to space doesn’t have to cost the Earth after all.

Boeing has agreed to repeat the test flight of its Starliner space capsule, a decision that sets its crewed space ambitions back by months and makes it likely SpaceX will win the race to return NASA’s astronauts to space from United States soil. The announcement comes after the initial flight late last year was marred by software glitches that prevented the capsule from reaching the International Space Station. The repeat flight likely will occur sometime in October or November, meaning the company probably won’t fly a mission with astronauts on board this year, according to a person familiar with the plans but not authorized to speak publicly. SpaceX is scheduled to make the first crewed flight of its Dragon capsule next month. Repeating the mission and investigating other problems with Starliner is an expensive proposition: Earlier this year, Boeing said it was taking a $410 million charge to offset the cost.  Boeing will refly its Starliner

The maiden mission of the Starliner spacecraft — a test demonstration without crews on board — went awry shortly after lift off from Cape Canaveral in December. Since then, NASA and Boeing have revealed that there were several problems, including a timing issue with the spacecraft’s computer that was 11 hours off.

Given the importance of the launches — to fly NASA astronauts for the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 — Boeing did not want to take any chances, the official said, especially given the crisis it endured when two of its 737 Max airplanes crashed killing 346 people.

“The last thing you want is to have crews on board and have something go wrong,” the official said.

It was unclear how much NASA influenced Boeing’s decision to refly the mission. The move was portrayed as a Boeing recommendation to NASA, which the space agency approved. In a statement, the space agency said it “has accepted the proposal to fly the mission again and will work side-by-side with Boeing to resume flight tests.” If Boeing had proposed moving directly to a crewed mission, NASA said it “would have completed a detailed review and analysis of the proposal to determine the feasibility of the plan.”

Shortly after The Post published this story, Boeing confirmed it would repeat the mission without crews, which “will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer. We will then proceed to the tremendous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station.”

It said it is “committed to the safety of the men and women who design, build and ultimately will fly on the Starliner just as we have on every crewed mission to space.”

When NASA awarded contracts, worth $6.8 billion combined, in 2014 to Boeing and SpaceX, Boeing was viewed as the industry stalwart that would likely earn the honor of restoring human spaceflight to American soil for NASA. But since then, SpaceX, which also flies cargo to the space station and was recently awarded a contract to resupply the outpost NASA wants to put in orbit around the moon, has become a force in the space industry long dominated by traditional contractors.

SpaceX is proceeding swiftly with its program. And after flying a successful mission without astronauts on board to the station last year, it is currently planning a flight with crews as early as May.  Boeing will refly its Starliner

Boeing had hoped to fly crews this year, but in addition to the timing issue, the company has said it encountered a software problem that would have caused the wrong thrusters to fire during the craft’s return to Earth, when what’s known as the service module separates from the crew module.

Controllers on the ground discovered the problem while the spacecraft was in orbit and were able to correct it. Had they not, however, it could have led to an array of significant problems, from damaging the spacecraft’s heat shield to sending it tumbling off course.

NASA and Boeing initially played down the significance of the spacecraft’s woes and held out hope that Boeing would be able to proceed with a flight with astronauts this year. But as the company and space agency uncovered more problems, NASA grew more pointed in its criticism of one of its most trusted contractors.

Earlier this year, NASA said in a blog post that “there were numerous instances where the Boeing software quality processes either should have or could have uncovered the defects. It added that those problems would have had serious consequences and “led to risk of spacecraft loss.”

As a result, Boeing is now reviewing all 1 million lines of code on the spacecraft — a lengthy and expensive process.  Boeing will refly its Starliner

Last month, SpaceX announced a problem leading up to the test of its spacecraft’s parachute system. A capsule-shaped device designed to simulate the weight and mass of the spacecraft became unstable as it was being hoisted aloft by a helicopter. Out of an abundance of caution, the pilot released the test device, destroying it.

But officials said they didn’t think the setback would delay the company’s progress. And a crewed launch remains scheduled for next month.

The number of satellites in orbit is expected to rise considerably in the upcoming decade. More satellites mean more debris and that means a greater risk of collisions. The space industry is therefore looking for ways to safeguard space operations for years to come. Keeping Space Tidy: Industry Steps Up

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly announced that his country successfully shot down one of its Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites with an anti-satellite missile in March, many in the global space community were quick to condemn the action. Though considerably less damaging than the infamous 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test, the Indian demonstration created a cloud of debris fragments, some of which might remain in orbit for years.

More clutter in orbit is exactly the last thing the space community needs. According to the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Debris Office, there are currently about 30,000 out of control objects larger than 10 centimeter (cm) in diameter hurtling around the Earth, including defunct satellites and fragments generated in collisions and in-orbit explosions. In addition to that, ESA’s scientists estimate a further 900,000 fragments larger than 1 cm and a staggering 130 million pieces larger than 1 millimeter (mm).

The smaller objects are impossible track. Still, they have the ability to destroy a satellite.

“These collisions occur at impact speeds of around 40,000 kilometer (km) an hour,” Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Safety Program Office, tells Via Space. “A 1 cm object has the ability to terminate a mission. If a satellite is hit by something larger than 10 cm, the impact will not only terminate the mission but also generate a huge number of fragments.” Keeping Space Tidy: Industry Steps Up

In August 2016, a fragment only a few millimeters in size hit the Earth-observing Sentinel-1A satellite, operated by ESA as part of the European Union (EU)-funded Copernicus program. Although the fragment created a 40 cm hole in the spacecraft’s solar panel, the spacecraft was able to make up for the resultant power loss, and the mission could continue without changes. Krag, however, admits the impact could have been far worse.

“If we were just two or three milliseconds earlier, we would have had an impact into the main body and that definitely would have had an effect,” he says. “We would have probably lost one of the instruments or, if the tank was hit, we might have lost the whole mission.”

Krag says that most satellites would experience a collision with an object about a millimeter in size during their lifetime. Depending on the area of the impact, such a collision could degrade the satellite’s performance. A collision with a larger, 1 cm, object could happen about every few hundred years per each satellite. With thousands of satellites in orbit, such an incident is statistically likely to occur every few years. A collision with a 10 cm object might happen every five years, according to Krag. Smaller fragmentation events are, however, far more frequent.

Dangerous Explosions

“Most of the debris pieces that we have in space are a result of explosions,” says Krag. “We have had more than 200 break-up events of rocket stages and satellites that happen because the spacecraft are left in space for too long after the mission ends and suffer from the aggressive space environment as a result. Residual fuel and pressure in the tanks can then lead to a break-up.” Keeping Space Tidy: Industry Steps Up

Such an event, Krag says, happens about five times per year. And so, the amount of space debris fragments is gradually rising. The math is simple — the more objects in space, the greater the likelihood of collisions. And since the number of objects in space is expected to rise greatly as mega-constellations of small satellites are moving from plans to reality, the experts worry about the future.

Since the launch of the Soviet Sputnik 1 in 1957, around 8,400 satellites have been lofted into space. Out of the nearly 5,000 still orbiting the Earth only about 2,000 are operational. Over the past few years, new space companies have filed plans to launch a combined 14,000 satellites. Even if not all of these satellites make it into orbit, the environment around the Earth is without a doubt set to become much busier.