Stories tagged ISS


Bang, zoom! Straight to the Moon, Alice!: Actually, not to the Moon. Straight to space, though. This is one of China's Long March rockets, which carried the Taikonauts to Tiangong-1 yesterday.
Bang, zoom! Straight to the Moon, Alice!: Actually, not to the Moon. Straight to space, though. This is one of China's Long March rockets, which carried the Taikonauts to Tiangong-1 yesterday.Courtesy AAxander
The International Space Station, the pride of low Earth orbit, lives up to its name for the most part—work there is the joint effort of a fifteen-nation partnership. So it’s not just NASA up there, there’s also the Russian Federal Space Agency, and, uh … probably some other things too. (JK. The Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies are all involved.)

When the partnership built this cool orbiting clubhouse, however, they hung a sign above the rope ladder, reading “No guRlz aLoud!!!” Except instead of “gurlz” it said “China,” and presumably the spelling was a little better. Also, there was no sign or rope ladder, because that would be ridiculous. But the sentiment remained: China is not part of the ISS partnership, because Congress has banned NASA from any contact, collaborations or partnerships with China, because of concerns over technology transfer.

In response, China has gone ahead with a space station program of their own. China has plans to build a full size space station in the not too distant future, but for the time being, they already have an orbiting module—sort of a mini space station. The module, “Tiangong-1,” has actually been in service for almost two years already, and China launched a three-person “taikonaut” crew to practice docking with the module yesterday. This will be China’s fifth manned mission to Tiangong-1, and it includes the second woman from China to travel into space.

What do y’all think? Exciting news? Would we be better off collaborating with China in space? Or are you all for a little competition? What’s the coolest name: astronaut, cosmonaut, or taikonaut? Let everyone know in the comments!


Wheeeeeee!: I'm a computer generated mockup, but I feel like I'm flyiinggggggg!
Wheeeeeee!: I'm a computer generated mockup, but I feel like I'm flyiinggggggg!Courtesy FlyingSinger
The Flight of Dragons? Anyone? Anyone? 1982 Rankin/Bass? I don't know. I thought it was pretty dope when I was 5, but I felt that way about a lot of stuff.

Whoops! Got sidetracked there! What I meant to say is that the private spaceflight company, SpaceX, will be launching their Dragon capsule tomorrow, to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Assuming all goes well. (And let's be a glass-half-full crowd and just assume that, eh?)

The unmanned Dragon capsule will be hurled into the heavens on SpaceX's 2 stage Falcon 9 rocket. When it gets to the Space Station, it will do a practice docking run. (This whole thing is kind of a trial run, although Dragon will have some cargo for the astronauts aboard. Just for fun, I guess.)

You'll know if everything went off without a hitch, because your life will be changed forever, or something.

The Flight of Dragons!


Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.
Do you want my advice, guys?: You should go get some asteroids.Courtesy Blue Marble
It isn’t good to confuse great-grandparents. For one, they’re often dead, and confusing them involves meddling in forces that are best be left alone. Or, in the case that they aren’t dead, they’ve had a busy life parenting, grand-parenting, and great-grand-parenting, and they deserve a little more from you than a bunch of confusing jibber-jabber about meteorites, or whatever you just said.

So if your great-grandparents are still alive (not dead), please do them a favor, and just make something up as you pretend to read the rest of this post out loud to them. Their side of the 20th century probably did not equip them for this sort of thing:

Asteroid mining! After thousands of years of scratching through the dirt, wearing our finger bones to stumps in near-futile attempts to uncover the shiniest bits of gravel, humanity will finally ascend to the stars, and scratch through the dirt of asteroids in the noble effort to find the shiniest astro-gravel. And it will make us richer than our wildest dreams!

Or it will make the billionaires behind the project as rich as their everyday dreams.

Here’s the story: a bunch of billionaires and their spunky sidekick, James Cameron (who is a film director, and worth only about 700 million dollars—practically destitute), looked out over their Earth and wept, because there was nowhere left to conquer. It was maybe the worst Unicorn Polo Sunday ever. But then James Cameron, lying on his back after slipping on a banana peel (that’s sort of his role in the group), looked up at the sky and said, “Hey, gang! I have an idea! Maybe there’s more up there for us!”

Well, the members of the Billionaires’ Club would like to say that they took lil’ Jim’s suggestion there and then, but, frankly, they had heard a lot of nonsense out of his pinched little mouth over the years, and they had long ago learned to tune him out. (Xenomorph this, Titanic that, look at my submarine, what about another killer robot, what has my ex wife done that’s so special?—they had heard it all before.)

But at some point Cameron’s seemingly childish remark filtered its way through the buzz of billionaire preoccupations (stocking up on mansion wax, plans to swim Scrooge McDuck style through gold coins, and which would be the best ocean to buy) and lodged itself in the billionaires’ minds, where it incubated, hatched, and chewed its way deeper into their brain tissue.

And thus Planetary Resources was born. With a group of billionaires behind it (including Larry Page, CEO of Google, power of earth; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, power of fire; Charles Simonyi, Microsoft guy, power of water; and Ross Perot Junior, son of diminutive former presidential candidate, power of heart) and James Cameron as an advisor (because he has made at least two movies about space, and has been in a submarine), Planetary Resources plans to scan thousands of near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, and then send robotic probes to pull the asteroids into a convenient location, and then smash them up for their goods.

Why? For a few reasons. Partly because it’s awesome, and you need to be super rich to do it, and they’re exactly that rich. But also because lots of these asteroids are full of precious, useful metals—billions and billions of dollars worth in even small asteroids. And asteroids with lots of ice in them could basically be turned into gas stations for spaceships. Water is pretty easily split into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for rocket fuel, and having fuel waiting in space is way, way, way cheaper than bringing it there from Earth. So making fuel available in space could potentially lower the cost of exploring our solar system quite a bit.

The plan is to launch a fleet of (relatively) cheap asteroid-scanning telescopes some time in the next two or three years to identify near-Earth objects that both contain enough valuable materials, and are near enough to Earth (the hope being that they would be as easy or easier to reach than the moon). In the next decade, or somewhere in that neighborhood anyway, larger spacecraft would be launched that could capture the asteroids. Harvested materials could then be processed in space, or sent back to the planet. All operations would be unmanned, as having human pilots or minors would make everything significantly more expensive and risky.

In the week or so since the Planetary Resources made their announcement, it seems like most of the professional reactions I’ve read have treated the plan pretty seriously—while it requires a large investment, it’s not unrealistic.

I have to admit, it’s kind of an exciting plan. And it will keep the billionaires occupied for a little bit, which is good. Because we all know what happens when a billionaire gets bored.

(It didn’t make sense to me either. You think your great-grandparents are going to get it?)


The ATV-2: The astronauts filled it with trash, and then burned it. But, to be fair, they probably ate that trash several times before they finally tossed it.
The ATV-2: The astronauts filled it with trash, and then burned it. But, to be fair, they probably ate that trash several times before they finally tossed it.Courtesy NASA
I am adding a’s to the end of words to make them sound a little like “NASA.” Try it. It’s funa.

Anywaya, I thought I’d run a little idea I had by y’all.

I got trash. Who doesn’t? You use stuff, you make trash, and it just piles up. Under your couch, in the freezer, on top of the cat … what are you supposed to do with it? Put it on the curb? I guess, but what’s exciting and easy about that? So, my idea—which I got from the world’s various space agencies—is to take my trasha up to the roofa of my apartment building (three stories!!) and just drop it. If I’m at all accurate in my understanding of acceleration and atmospheric friction, all those Sears catalogues, plastic cups, and mouse skeletons should burn up before they hit the ground.

I mean, it’s what NASA, the European Space Agency and all of their ilk do, and it seems to work for them. Take the ESA’s recently launched ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle-3). The large, unmanned space capsule will deliver about 7 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (a few hundred pounds of food, water and oxygen, and about 6.5 tons of candy), stay docked for 4 to 6 month while the astronauts use it like a missing roommate’s walk-in closet, and then, once it’s completely full of trash, it will detach, fall towards Earth, and incinerate in the atmosphere. Easy peasy. Easya peasya.

Despite it being what I think is an elegant solutiona to waste accumulationa, there are plenty of folks out there, who may or may not be smarter than hundreds of NASA systems engineers, that believe this proves that astronauts are the worst recyclers ever. To this, I have three things to say:

1) You’re no fun.
2) Think about the fuel it takes to get those tons of junk into space. You’re worried about the waste that happens after that?
3) Wrong! In a lot of respects, astronauts on the ISS are the best recyclers in the histories of re and cycling.

See, here’s the thing about #3: astronauts may dump their candy wrappers, dead pets, banana peels and old undies (JK, they wear those undies for months) into a fiery and unforgiving atmosphere, but there’s a lot of stuff that they re-use again and again that you’d never even think of. Air, for one. And water.

When you’re breathing, farting, sweating and peeing for months on end in an airtight box floating in space, and a fresh glass of water costs between $10,000 and $15,000 for delivery, you have to be clever.

And the engineers of the ISS are clever! Consider the Environmental Control and Life Support System. Astronauts, like most of us, breath out poisonous carbon dioxide, fart out poisonous methane and sweat out poisonous ammonia. ECLSS filters out all of that to produce fresh air again. The system also splits water molecules apart to create breathable oxygen, and reclaims moisture from urine and other waist to produce more water for drinking (or ultimately breathing). I don’t know about you, but I rarely save my farts, sweat, breath and urine, much less reuse them.

All things considered, I think the ISS has a pretty sweet setup figured out. A two hundred and fifty mile trash drop-n-burn (awesome), and a system that can recycle pretty much anything that comes out of your body (also awesome). The rest of us should be so luckya.


I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.
I'm not complaining: But astronaut ice cream is old news. I need new gifts all the time.Courtesy Raiden256
I like to think of myself as a fair man.

With this in mind, I try to live my life under two basic philosophies: an eye for an eye, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Sometimes I mix and match those ideas, but the essential thing is that my life is a series of reciprocated acts of scratching and eye gouging, and I think I’m better off for it. So, to make sure I’m being fair, I often find myself asking, “What have you ever done for me?”

Like, hey, Mom, what have you ever done for me? Birth? Well that was probably an accident. And what have you done for me lately?

Oh, hello, stranger. You want me to call the police? Maybe, but what have you ever done for me? Because from where I stand, all I think you’ve ever done for me is ruin my walk with your crying, and I’m on a 450-minute calling plan. I need those minutes for prank phone calling the animal shelter.

Why, sure, doctor, I’d love to pay you. But what have you ever done for me? You took that worm out of my eyeball? That’s pretty good, but I don’t know if it’s $2500 good. Here’s $37.25, and let’s call it square.

And so on. It works out pretty well, I think. Obviously it best applies to direct interactions, but I believe it’s reasonable to apply it to all things, which is why I spend most of my free time making lists of things (e.g. pineapples, leather, Gorbachev, Roman numerals, NASA, whispering, stickiness, shoe, minty, etc.) and then examining just what each item has done for me, so that I can better understand the balance of our relationship. As you may have guessed, I’m currently on “NASA.”

And so … NASA: what has it ever done for me?

My initial thought was, “very little.” I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate space ships and moon men, and all that. It has all been very inspiring. But, NASA, what have you done for me lately? I’ve never been given the chance to take a crack at microgravity, or to punch someone wearing a spacesuit in the stomach while wearing a spacesuit myself. Those are the kinds of things that could pull NASA up from the eye-plucking category into the back-scratching category, but they just haven’t happened.

Well, imagine my surprise when I saw this: NASA’s “Spinoff” page. Spinoff is basically NASA’s way of saying, “here’s what we’ve done for you, you ungrateful little punk.” I don’t like being spoken to that way, even when I’m the one who invented the less than cordial paraphrasing, but they and I have a point. Spinoff is about all the ways that NASA science makes it into the lives of norms—not just inventions like Tang (which, as it happens, NASA didn’t actually invent), but technologies that directly impact our everyday lives, and that create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. It’s difficult to fully quantify the benefits from NASA tech, but NASA estimates that technologies featured in Spinoff since the year 2000 have saved about 12,000 lives, and extended or enhanced 86 million more; that efficiency engineering developments have saved companies about $6.2 billion; that NASA partners have created about 9,200 jobs; and that agency partner companies have generated $1.2 billion in revenue with the help of NASA technology.

I’m not going to list individual developments here because there are just tons of them, and because I’m super lazy, but they range from more aerodynamic semi-trucks, to better fire-extinguishing systems, to advances in energy efficiency, to … well, right, tons of stuff. But I would highly recommend taking a look at NASA’s 2011 Spinoff book, which can be found (free) in PDF form here. It’s over 200 pages, but it’s an entertaining and informative skim (or an informative read, I guess, but what has reading ever done for me?)

Check it out—it’s pretty interesting, and it should help you avoid a lengthy, crushing comeback when you ask NASA what it’s done for you lately. (That can be very embarrassing.)


Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.
Why is that spaceship covered in flamethrowers?!: Oh. Maybe they're rockets.Courtesy SpaceX
With the closure of NASA’s flamethrower program, flamethrower enthusiasts have expressed concern that America would fall behind the rest of the world in flamethrower exploration, and that it would ultimately be a loss to flamethrowers and humanity in general.

Fortunately, government and private industry partnerships have continued to pursue flamethrower development, and, as it happens, a prominent company in this field, FlamethrowerX, has just recently begun testing what looks to be a pretty sweet flamethrower.

Oh … man, I just realized something. I re-read those last two paragraphs, and it seems like I made multiple typos. I don’t believe in editing electronic documents (frankly, I find it to be egregious JGordon on JGordon censorship, and it makes me sick), so I’ll just walk you through the last couple sentences.

Where I wrote “flamethrower” at the beginning of this article, I meant to type “space shuttle.” And immediately after the first comma, where it says “flamethrower,” it’s actually supposed to read “space.” Near the end of that same sentence, the term “flamethrower appears two more times, and it should read “space” and “science,” respectively.

Now, in the second paragraph, you might have noticed that I wrote “pursue flamethrower development”—of course I meant to say that they’re pursuing “spaceflight development.” And when I wrote “FlamethrowerX,” I should have written “SpaceX,” because SpaceX is actually the name of the company I was referring to.

Finally, when I referred to “a pretty sweet flamethrower,” I really meant “a pretty sweet flamethrower.” Unless I meant, “rocket.” Making the flamethrower/rocket distinction can be pretty tricky sometimes.

See, SpaceX has already developed a huge rocket, called “Falcon 9,” which can propel a cargo capsule (the “Dragon capsule”) into orbit. When the Dragon capsule returns to Earth, it has to do so the old-fashioned way; straight up falling like some stupid rock in a parachute. I mean it works fine and everything—it was good enough for the Apollo astronauts returning from the moon—but what if you wanted a soft landing on, say, the moon or mars, where there aren’t convenient oceans there to catch you? Well, shucks, in that case you’d probs want some pretty sweet rockets (or flamethrowers?) on your capsule.

That’s what SpaceX is testing. They have developed a rocket for the capsule (each capsule would have 8 rockets) that will allow it to land gently and with “pinpoint accuracy” on Earth and other potential destinations. These “SuperDraco” rockets would serve another purpose as well: they could function as a launch abort system for the capsule. If something were to go dangerously wrong with a payload rocket (like the Falcon 9) while it was launching a capsule full of astronauts into space, the SuperDraco rockets could fire with enough force to cause the capsule to safely separate from the larger rocket. And the whole system would be reusable, too. Pretty slick.

And, for scrolling all the way through this nonsense about flamethrowers, here’s a video of the rocket test for you, complete with sweet canned rock and roll:

(It looks kind of like a totally awesome flamethrower, doesn’t it? Although I suppose you wouldn’t really want a flamethrower that would crush you to pieces, and send you flying into the upper atmosphere. Or would you?)

Wired just posted a gallery of imagined (or even proposed) space stations over the last hundred years. Kind of cool.

Also, as a little bonus link, here's how the International Space Station compares to some space ships from science fiction. Keep in mind, of course, that most of the ISS's area consists of solar panels, not holodecks or viper bays. Can't have it all, I guess.


A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.
A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.Courtesy NASA
History has shown us time and time again that careless exploration of backronyms can be a dangerous mistake. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, who had a mild stroke while constructing his theory of Green Round Apples Veer Inward To Dang. Or consider the vicious beating Roald Dahl received after founding his youth literacy and mentoring program, Real Everyday Adults Delivering Intelligence Not Gum. Constructing an acronym to fit an already decided upon word or phrase is a process fraught with the threat of physical harm (or, at the very least, mild embarrassment).

Thank goodness for the ironically straightforwardly acronymed NASA and MIT, who are braving the field of wild, retroactively applied acronyms so the rest of us don’t have to.

NASA’s and MIT’s current research in the field centers on its SPHERES project. SPHERES stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around. For the time being, NASA is attempting to sneak up on the principles of causation by pretending that it was a coincidence.

In addition to stressing linguistic credibility to the extent that its breaking point may become clear, the SPHERES project has a physical component with secondary objectives. SPHERES is actually composed of three separate robots, each about the size and shape of a bowling ball (get it?! “SPHERES”?!) The robots will be taken to the International Space Station, where they’ll just kind of float around together.

Or, I guess, they won’t just be floating around. I mean, if you’re in space and not tied down, you’ll float around. But if you, like the SPHERES robots, have your own onboard power supply (AA batteries), navigation and propulsion system (CO2 jets), and computer system, you can do a lot more than just float. The SPHERES robots will practice flying around the ISS in tightly controlled formation with each other.

I suppose it doesn’t sound all that tricky—after all, dumb ol’ birds can fly in formation, and they’re dumb. But, then again, birds have evolved for millions of years to do that sort of thing, and being in space—where there really isn’t a true “up” or “down”—presents its own challenges. These simple little robots have to coordinate with each other and their surroundings perfectly to stay in formation. And once they (that is, the people that make and program the robots) get the hang of that, there are some pretty slick applications for objects in space that can automatically stay in perfect formation.

For one, it should make the processes of servicing, re-supplying, reconfiguring, and upgrading the ISS and other space systems easier, because these things all involve two or more extremely expensive floating objects that need to be oriented just right to get a job done and avoid smashing each other up while doing it.

Also, it turns out that a formation of itty-bitty satellites (sort of like the SPHERES spheres) can do some of the work of a much bigger, more expensive satellite. For example, instead of using a satellite telescope that relies on one huge mirror, a formation of lots of small satellites could gather bits of light that could be put together into an image. That way, if one small satellite was damaged, it wouldn’t wreck the whole project. Also, the formation of satellites could potentially be larger than a single mirror (or mirror array on one satellite).

And then there’s also the notion that each astronaut could have his or her own fleet of tiny floating robots. They could be used to feed and clean the astronauts, and, of course, fight for their amusement.*

Here’s a video of the a recent (recent-ish—it’s from 2009) test run of the spheres. Watch as they do what they do best:

And here’s MIT’s SPHERES website, where they delve more into the motivations of the SPHERES project (but not so much into the acronym issue.)

For more pictures of the spheres floating in the ISS, scroll to the bottom of this page.

*This paragraph contains no NASA endorsed ideas. It just seems to me like the obvious thing to do.

I really enjoyed this video tour from one end of the International Space Station to the other. If you have the right stuff, watching this in high definition mode is wonderful.


OMG! Upside down!: (Not a space toilet.)Courtesy Kcstsg
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of man and mankind’s first steps on the moon, one of the International Space Station’s two toilets has broken.

I hate to say, “I told you so,” but, really, they should have seen this coming. See, my understanding of the ISS is that it’s sort of like a little floating frat. Getting in can be a hassle (but once you are in it’s vaguely uncomfortable), everybody has the same haircut, their jokes are largely based on cable TV and women are few and far between. So I feel like they should have known that the toilet was going to get a lot of use the day after a celebration.

In any case, one of the toilets broke for some reason. And, just like in a frat, they’re making the foreign guy fix it. (I guess in space everybody is foreign. But a Belgian guy is really foreign in space. Also, I don’t know how many foreign exchange students belong to frats. But you know what they say about assumptions: they’re useful and awesome.)

They aren’t sure yet how serious the malfunction is (so I guess it’s not overflowing, or anything), but eventually it will have to be sorted out, because a single bathroom apparently isn’t enough for the full ISS crew of six. Until that happens, though, there’s still the other bathroom, as well as plenty of “Apollo-era urine collection bags.”

Best wishes, spacemen. (And woman.) You’re living the dream.