NSS Enterprise in Space Orbiter Design Contest

NSS Enterprise in Space Orbiter Design Contest
NSS Enterprise in Space Orbiter Design Contest

The NASA Space Shuttle Enterprise never made it to orbit. While that was the original intent, subsequent redesigns undertaken during the Enterprise testing phase made this impractical.

Most tragically, another Enterprise – Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, crashed in the Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014 – a crash in which co-pilot Michael Alsbury lost his life. VSS Enterprise had undertaken more than thirty successful test flights and was the first of five planned suborbital spacecraft to be used to send tourists and experiments on suborbital trips to space.

Unfortunately the news media focus on the space tourism aspect of companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace while largely ignoring the fact that these spacecraft will be important platforms for conducting a wide variety of experiments in a microgravity environment.

But suborbital is not orbital. With luck and public support the first Enterprise to orbit the Earth will be the NSS Enterprise Orbiter which will carry approximately 100 competitively selected student experiments into low Earth orbit and after a week’s time return them safely to Earth.

Before the Enterprise can be built it must be designed. And this is where you can help. One feature of this program is that the Enterprise in Space team is calling on artists, engineers, science fiction fans, students, designers, space activists, and dreamers to come up with their own concept of what the NSS Enterprise Orbiter should look like. And unlike the overwhelming majority of art, graphics, and design contests that require entrants to pay a submission fee, entry in the Enterprise in Space Design Contest is free!

If designing spacecraft isn’t for you then you can support the Enterprise in Space project by:

As the newly appointed manager for the EIS Orbiter Design Contest I offer the following basic tips for those entering the contest.

My first tip is to do it. Not only are there some great prizes for the contest winner but the winner will have a place in the history of private/personal space exploration.

My second tip is that you don’t have to be a master of 3D or CAD software. I’ll remind you that such software is a very recent invention. It’s the design that counts and that can be illustrated using nothing more complex than paper, pencil, and ruler.

Third is to follow the rules. An important rule is to not design a spacecraft that looks like a spacecraft that is associated with a spacecraft from TV or film. It must be your own original design.

Fourth is to be mindful that the spacecraft you design will be housing somewhere around one hundred student experiments. That means avoiding a design that minimizes internal volume. Once manufactured, your orbiter will physically have as its maximum dimensions 8 feet by 8 feet by 6 feet so be mindful of the factors 8 x 8 x 6 in designing your craft.

So now is the time to either fire up your favorite graphics software or grab your drafting supplies and get to designing a spacecraft that is truly unique. The submission deadline is fast approaching so don’t delay. But first make sure you fully understand the contest by reading the Enterprise In Space Design Contest Rules.

Lastly, I would like to wish everyone entering the contest the best of luck and I look forward to seeing the designs you create.

Ad Astra, Jim Plaxco; Manager, Enterprise in Space Orbiter Design Contest

Zoomable Image of the Whole Earth at Night

This new image of the Earth at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands.

Source: gigapan.com/gigapans/119535.

Beautiful New "Blue Marble" Image

1200 x 1200 pixel 500 kilobyte version

8000 x 8000 pixel 16 megabyte version

This striking “Blue Marble” image of the Earth was taken January 4th by NASA’s newest Earth-observing satellite, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP). The satellite was named after the late Verner E. Suomi, a meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin who is recognized widely as “the father of satellite meteorology.” The image was taken by the largest of the satellite’s instruments, the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). This composite image was created using a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface over the course of four orbits. More information.

More Planets than Stars – But Axial Tilt may be the Key to Life

There is an average of more than one planet per star in the Milky Way
Image Credit: NASA / ESA / ESO

With the forthcoming publication in the journal Nature on 12 January, it is estimated that there are more than 100 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy. That means more than one planet per star, and results show that there are more rocky small Earth-like planets than giant Jupiter-size gas planets.

Most recent discoveries have come from the Kepler Observatory using transit observations. Some of the earliest confirmation of gas giants came from radial velocity Doppler observations.

The conclusions in the Nature article are based on micro-lensing studies.

Recent results from the Kepler Observatory have shown the existence of three small, rocky planets around the star KOI-961, a red dwarf. These three planets, named KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03, are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars (see below). Follow-up observations were made by the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Relative size of the three rocky planets around KOI-961
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Since it is now clear that rocky planets exist around millions, if not billions, of stars, the question arises as to whether there is life on them, and whether it may resemble life on Earth.

Whether a planet exists in the “Goldilocks” region around a star depends on many factors. Three factors include the type of star, how far away from the star the planet resides and the atmospheric pressure of the planet. A red dwarf, such as Gliese 581, means the planet has to be closer than the Earth to our Sun. A white hot star means the planet has to be farther away. And if the atmosphere is low, like Mars, or to high, like Venus, liquid water is not likely.

A fourth factor is axial tilt. If a planet has no axial tilt (the spin axis is perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the star) then the polar regions freeze and the equatorial regions bake. There is little exchange between these regions due to atmospheric circulation. Axial tilt, such as the Earth has, allows distribution of heat between the equator and the poles.

Even if a planet has axial tilt, a recent study shows that interaction at a close distance (within the “Goldilocks” region) with red dwarf will eliminate axial tilt in less than 100 million years. Bacteria on Earth required 1,000 million years to evolve. Theoretically, a planet with no axial tilt could possess bands between the equator and the poles where liquid water would exist. But, it is quite possible the atmosphere would collapse, with gases being driven off into space at the very hot equator, and freezing solid on the ground at the poles. Such a possibility faces the planets around KOI 961.

Systems with stars like our Sun present better possibilities. The “Goldilocks” conditions exist much farther out, and axial tilt is eliminated much more slowly, as our Earth is witness. Systems such as Kepler-22b are good candidates.

The conclusion drawn from these studies is that systems similar to our Solar System present the best opportunities for life.

Australians Receive Funding for Plasma Thruster

Australia National University’s Plasma Research Laboratory has received a grant to help build its Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT). If successful, the driver could be in space as early as 2013.

Because of the high temperatures generated in plasma drives, the trick is confining the hot gas without it destroying the chamber. For this, the HDLT uses a magnetic field in the source tube, where a gas like Krypton or Xenon is heated by a radio antenna. In space, the researchers hope that less than one gram of propellant would power a five-hour burn.

Read full story.

NASA's Gravity Probe B Confirms Einstein's Theory

NASA’s Gravity Probe B (GP-B) mission has confirmed two key predictions derived from Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which the spacecraft was designed to test.

The experiment, launched in 2004, used four ultra-precise gyroscopes to measure the hypothesized geodetic effect, the warping of space and time around a gravitational body, and frame-dragging, the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates.

GP-B determined both effects with unprecedented precision by pointing at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit around Earth. If gravity did not affect space and time, GP-B’s gyroscopes would point in the same direction forever while in orbit. But in confirmation of Einstein’s theories, the gyroscopes experienced measurable, minute changes in the direction of their spin, while Earth’s gravity pulled at them.

“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey. As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” said Francis Everitt, GP-B principal investigator at Stanford University. “GP-B confirmed two of the most profound predictions of Einstein’s universe, having far-reaching implications across astrophysics research. Likewise, the decades of technological innovation behind the mission will have a lasting legacy on Earth and in space.”

GP-B is one of the longest running projects in NASA history, with agency involvement starting in the fall of 1963 with initial funding to develop a relativity gyroscope experiment. Subsequent decades of development led to groundbreaking technologies to control environmental disturbances on spacecraft, such as aerodynamic drag, magnetic fields and thermal variations. The mission’s star tracker and gyroscopes were the most precise ever designed and produced.

“The mission results will have a long-term impact on the work of theoretical physicists,” said Bill Danchi, senior astrophysicist and program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Every future challenge to Einstein’s theories of general relativity will have to seek more precise measurements than the remarkable work GP-B accomplished.”

GP-B completed its data collection operations and was decommissioned in December 2010.

More information:

NASA – Gravity Probe B: The Relativity Mission
Stanford – Gravity Probe B: Testing Einstein’s Universe
NASA Press Conference on YouTube (50 minutes)

Astrobotic Technology Signs SpaceX Contract for Lunar XPrize Mission

Falcon 9 / Lunar Mission
Image Credit:
Astrobotic Technology

Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University, announced the signing of a contract with SpaceX to launch its Lunar XPrize mission using a Falcon 9 rocket.

Astrobotic intends to launch as early as December 2013. The mission includes a rover designed to operate for three months, and commercial payloads on the lander priced at $700,000 per pound, plus a fee of $250,000-per-payload to cover the cost of integration, communications, power, thermal control and pointing services.

Currently, Astrobotic Technology has a contract with NASA to design a lunar mining robot that can extract frozen volatiles (water, methane) at polar locations. These can be used to create propellants for spacecraft returning to Earth.

Japan and Support of the International Space Station

Previously, we looked at the Europeans Space Agency (ESA) and their ATV program, which is preparing to send their resupply spacecraft, Johannes Kepler, to the International Space Station on 15 February.

Now, we look at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the recently completed launch and capture of the Kounotori spacecraft.

HTV-2 "Kounotori"
Image Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

The external exposed cargo includes a Flex Hose Rotary Coupler and Cargo Transport Container. These spare parts will be transferred to External Logistics Carrier 4 after it is installed during the Discovery STS-133 mission.

The pressurized cargo space is carrying 2,928 kilograms of supplies and equipment:

  • 630 kilograms of crew provisions
  • 1,626 kilograms of research equipment and supplies
  • 609 kilograms) of station hardware
  • 49 kilograms of computers and supplies
  • 14 kilograms of spacewalking equipment and supplies

Among the new research equipment will be the Japanese Kobairo gradient heating furnace for generating high-quality crystals from melting materials, an Amine Swingbed technology demonstration that will look at ways to revitalize the air on space vehicles, and the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, which will take frequent images, in visible and infrared light, of vegetated areas on the Earth.

Canadarm2 Captures HTV2
Image Credit: NASA

Hatch Open
Removing cargo through the hatch on HTV2
Image Credit: JAXA

Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) – The 800 Pound Gorilla

The most recent issue of Science News (18 December 2010) has the following notes from 17 December 1960:

HEAVY SHIELD UNNECESSARY — Heavy shielding as protection for an astronaut against space radiations may not be necessary, at least for trips of less than 50 hours and at distances not greater than 618 miles from earth…. [B]iological specimens were encased in different types of metal to test their effectiveness as shielding materials. Some specimens were shielded only by the thin aluminum covering of the specimen capsule and the comparatively thin shell of the recovery capsule. Radiation dosimeters showed that aluminum provided better shielding properties than lead and that any heavy metal such as gold or lead becomes a hazard during a solar flare as high energy protons interact with these heavy metals to create damaging X-rays.

However, if you want to travel to the Moon or journey anywhere within the Solar System, Galactic Cosmic Radiation will require that the human crew is protected. Let’s take a look at the problem and the research required to test and implement solutions.


The GCR problem arises from interstellar atomic nuclei traveling near the speed of light striking the structure of a spacecraft. The resulting shower of secondary particles cause radiation damage. The Earth is protected by the Van Allen belts and a deep atmosphere. Brief journeys such as an Apollo mission does not expose the astronaut to dangerous dosages. However, astronauts on such a journey are at risk from Solar flares (Solar Particle Events – SPE). SPEs can be mitigated with layers of hydrogen rich materials such as polyethylene or water. GCRs, however, require spaceships on long journeys of more than 100 days, or habitats on the Lunar or Martian surface, to be surrounded by tens of meters of water for passive protection, or magnetic shields for active protection. Either solution is extremely heavy and makes space flight prohibitive in terms of propellant requirements.

The following sections discuss each aspect and provide references for further reading about the problem

The Source of GCR

Galactic Cosmic Rays come from outside our Solar System, but from within our galaxy, the Milky Way. They are comprised of atomic nuclei that have been stripped of their electrons. These nuclei can be any element. Common elements are carbon, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, and iron with similar abundances as the Solar System. Lithium, Berylium and Boron are overabundant relative to the Solar System ratios.

The Shielding Problem

Early on, it was suggested that cosmic rays could penetrate the Apollo spacecraft. From “Biomedical Results of Apollo” section IV, chapter 2, Apollo Light Flash Investigations we have the following account:

Crewmembers of the Apollo 11 mission were the first astronauts to describe an unusual visual phenomenon associated with space flight. During transearth coast, both the Commander and the Lunar Module Pilot reported seeing faint spots or flashes of light when the cabin was dark and they had become dark-adapted. It is believed that these light flashes result from high energy, heavy cosmic rays penetrating the Command Module structure and the crew members’ eyes. These particles are thought to be capable of producing, visual sensations through interaction with the retina, either by direct deposition of ionization energy in the retina or through creation of visible light via the Cerenkov effect.

When Galactic Cosmic Rays collide with another atom, such as those contained in the Aluminum, Stainless Steel or Titanium structures of a spacecraft, they can create a shower of secondary particles, These secondary particles cause radiation damage in living organisms (humans).

The problem is creating sufficiently powerful barriers to these extremely energetic nuclei.

Researching Solutions

  • Passive Shielding – At least for solar flares (SPE), some solutions are easier than the GCR problem.
  • Active Shielding
  • Fast Passage to avoid exposure (VASIMR propelled craft). A proposal for vapor core reactors integrated with VASIMR engines.
  • A proposal for studying radiation and other factors associated with long term human occupation of space.
  • NASA’s Space Radiation Program in association with the Brookhaven National Laboratories.
  • In 2008, the National Academies of Science published Managing Space Radiation Risk in the New Era of Space Exploration, which included chapter 6: Findings and Recommendations
  • From the Summary in Radiation Shielding Simulation For Interplanetary Manned Missions
      Inflatable Habitat + shielding

    • Hadronic interactions are significant, systematics is under control
    • The shielding capabilities of an inflatable habitat are comparable to a conventional rigid structure – Water / polyethylene are equivalent
    • Shielding thickness optimisation involves complex physics effects
    • An additional shielding layer, enclosing a special shelter zone, is effective against SPE
      Moon Habitat

    • Regolith shielding limits GCR and SPE exposure effectively
    • Its shielding capabilities against GCR can be better than conventional Al structures as in the ISS

See also the recent article in New Scientist about radiation hazards. A tip of the hat to ParabolicArc.

The Garden on The International Space Station

The latest crop harvested from the Garden on the International Space Station is Mizuna lettuce. The lettuce was returned to Earth for scientific research, aboard the Discovery shuttle in April 2010.

The greenhouse, first sent up in 2002, has been used for 20 plant growth experiments so far. Now, a second unit has been added, and the lettuce crop was the first experiment to test different conditions side by side.

For many years, the experiments have sought to confirm Earth side results which show that minimizing water usage and salt accumulation would lead to healthier crops. During this experiment, two different root growth mediums were used. One was the traditional root pack used on all the previous tests. The second was the new and improved root pack, with slow release fertilizer. The hypothesis was that the slow release would help reduce salt intake.

Science is sometimes best when things go wrong.

Mizuna Lettuce
Mizuna Lettuce On ISS
Image Credit: NASA

For some reason, the sensor controlling the watering in the first (traditional) module failed. This resulted in “over-watering” the plants. The results were surprising, but microgravity has held many surprises for scientists. First, the seeds that got “too much” water sprouted quicker and developed leaves twice as fast as the second (improved) module. The second surprise was that the plants grown in the slow release fertilizer in the second module had more salt accumulation than the plants in the first module.

The results suggest that plants in space need a larger volume of water and a faster rate of fertilizer than they do under normal gravity. Shane Topham, an engineer with Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan, said that “the conservative water level we have been using for all our previous experiments may be below optimal for plant growth in microgravity”.

Overall, the garden experiments have four objectives:

  • Can the crops grown in space be consumed safely
  • What microorganisms grow on the plants, and how do you prevent or minimize microorganisms in the modules prior to launch
  • How do you clean and sanitize the crops after they are harvested
  • What conditions optimize the production of crops in microgravity

One additional objective of the experiments is to measure the non-nutritional benefits (stress relief, etc.) that crew members experience working with plants in space. Growing and tending to the crops provides comfort and relaxation to the crew. On a long voyage, this activity may contribute to the success of the mission.

Lada Module
A view of the Russian BIO-5 Rasteniya-2/Lada-2 (Plants-2)
plant growth experiment located in the Zvezda Service Module
on the International Space Station (ISS).
Image Credit: NASA

A close up view of sprouts on the Russian Lada-2 experiment.
Image Credit: NASA

A view of peas growing in the Russian Lada-2 plant growth experiment.
Image Credit: NASA

A close up view of a bloom on the Russian Lada-2 plant growth experiment.
Image Credit: NASA