Space Sunday: space stations, telescopes and images

A conceptual image of the completed Orbital Reef space station, with a mix of rigid and inflatable additional modules, and a Dreamchaser Cargo spaceplane docked to the right, and two Boeing CST-100 Starliners docked on the left. Credit: Blue Origin / Sierra Space

October 25th, 2021 saw an announcement that caught much of the space media by surprise during the proceeds of the 72nd International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, when Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space, the space development arm of the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), revealed they plan to lead a multi-corporate venture to establish a commercial space station in Earth orbit by 2030.

Orbital Reef, as the facility is to be called, is intended to see the consortium led by the two companies establish the basics for the station by the later 2020s, allowing for a potential transition of orbital operational from the International Space Station (ISS) to Orbital Reef by the time the ISS is retired in 2030.

Under the partnership, Blue Origin will develop large-diameter core modules and utility systems, as well as provide launch services using its still-to fly New Glenn heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV), whilst Sierra Space will provide additional inflatable modules for the facility, and use its Dream Chaser cargo space plane for resupply missions, and (at some point) the original crewed version of the space plane to transfer personnel to / from the station.

Conceptual rendering of Genesis Engineering Solutions “single person space vehicle”. Credit: Genesis Engineering Solutions

Other companies involved in the project include Boeing, who will supply a science module for the station provide their CST-100 Starliner crew vehicle for personnel transfers and provide all ground-based systems operations and support for the station, and Genesis Engineering Solutions will provide a “single person space vehicle” that is already being called the “space pod” for on-obit operations around the station in situations where “suitless” EVAs are desirable.

Blurb for the station states it will be used for a variety of roles: commercial ventures, research across a number of fronts (with Arizona State University leading a consortium of 14 international universities that plan to participate in the research work) and – inevitably – a vacation destination for those with deep pockets.

A promotional video for the station shows it have a long, pressured core module, complete with large windows, together with fore-and-aft docking ports for visiting space vehicles, and multiple port along its sides for the addition of permanent or temporary modules, which can also have their own docking facilities. However, this is said to be the “final” configuration of the station, complete with a multi-array solar power system; the initial “baseline” facility will be far smaller and more modest.

The completed station will be positioned at 500 km altitude – somewhat above the ISS’s nominal 475 km – and will be capable of supported up to 10 people at any one time, with 830 cubic metres of usable internal space – marking it as slightly smaller than the ISS – although this can, as noted, be expanded through the use of additional modules.

The announcement comes as one of several offered in response to NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations programme, which will select up to four proposal for commercial facilities to replace the ISS, and finance the initial R&D ins each, with further funding to cover certifying the stations for use by NASA astronauts. However, both Sierra Space and Blue Origin have indicated they plan to move ahead regardless of any NASA seed funding.

A critical factor for the project will be Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Development of this initially commenced as a design study in 2012, with the project formally announced in 2016. However, unlike the development of the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy (which started development at the same time as New Glenn), it has yet to fly, and has seen a number of shifts in direction.

Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 core stage and their Super Heavy booster, the first stage of New Glenn is intended to be reusable. However, earlier in 2021, the company announced plans to accelerate the development of a reusable upper stage, code-named Jarvis which – in grabbing a leaf from the SpaceX book of how to do things – will be in part be of a stainless steel construction. Because of this, coupled with issues experienced in developing the vehicle’s primary engine, the BE-4, the first flight of New Glenn most likely will not take place until very late in 2022, or early 2023, some three years behind the original target date.

Dreamchaser Cargo spaceplane and external unpressurised cargo module / power “trunk”. This craft is due to start flying to the ISS in 2022, and would be used to fly resupply missions to Orbital Reef. Credit: Sierra Space / SNC

While timeline slips in any developing project are to be expected (just look at NASA, or indeed, “Elon Time” vs actual time with SpaceX projects), the pace of development with New Glenn does question whether Blue Origin can meet a 5-7 year timeline to provide the core of a space station. By contrast, Sierra Space is due to start flying their Dreamchaser Cargo vehicle on resupply flights to the ISS in 2022, and prior to losing on a contract to fly a crewed variant of the vehicle to carrying astronauts to / from the ISS as part of NASA Commercial Crew Programme, SNC has continued to maintain research into a crewed version of the vehicle.

Other entities / consortiums throwing their hats into the ring to provide commercial orbital facilities include Axiom Space, with plans – as noted in past Space Sunday articles – to fly at least one module to the ISS in the mid-2020s, with the planes to use the module(s) it flies to the ISS as the core of a new station as ISS reaches its end-of-life at the end of the 2020s. Another consortium, Nanoracks, Voyager Space Holdings and Lockheed Martin, announced plans to fly a much more modest space station, Starlab. Utilising an inflatable module and core docking / power facility, Starlab would have an internal volume of 340 cubic metres and would be capable of supporting up to 4 people at a time.

Hubble Suffers Further Glitch

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the thirty-year-old veteran of orbital space science, suffered a further operational glitch on Monday, October 25th, unexpectedly switching itself into a “safe” mode that has suspended all science operations.

The switch-over happened after Hubble experienced synchronisation issues with its internal communications”; however, the telescope is reported to otherwise be in good health. This is the second time this year the telescope has switched to a safe mode – in summer an issue with the primary payload computer that took a month to diagnose and rectify, gave rise to concerns over HST’s future – although this issue is not as serious, but there is currently no estimate as to when normal operations might be resumed.

While it may not be considered serious, this latest issue is, however, indicative of HST’s advancing years and the fact that it was last serviced in 2009, so sadly, elements aboard it will be approaching their end-of-life – although it is hoped the telescope will be able to remain operation through until the late 2030s.

 Yup. E.T. Wasn’t Calling

In December 2020, I reported on a radio signal detected in a part of the sky that neatly aligns with our closest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri. It was picked up by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia; one of two radio telescopes used by the Breakthrough Listen project to specifically scan and re-scan the stars nearest to us for radio signals – although at the time the radio telescope wasn’t being used for that purpose.

While the signal – actually heard in May 2019 – was unlikely to be of an extra-terrestrial origin (it contained no modulation, suggesting it was devoid of any form of data) the fact that it seemed to come from the direction of Proxima Centauri coupled with its unusual frequency of 982.002Mhz (ruling out the potential for it being the product of any known stellar radio source), caused excitement in some parts of the tabloid press.

The primary 64-metre radio telescope dish of the Parkes Observatory, New South Wales. Credit: John Sarkissian

Although researchers at Parkes (and the Breakthrough Listen project) were quick to tamp down on the idea E.T. was calling, the signal remained a puzzle because while it demonstrated a degree of frequency drift during the period of detection, analysts could not be traced to a source orbiting Earth.

Now, after an exhaustive study, both to completely rule-out the miniscule chance we were hearing an artificial signal from somewhere, and to try to locate an Earthly cause for its detection, a team led by Dr. Sofia Sheikh believe they have sourced the signal: a humble crystal oscillator, also referred to as a clock oscillator, a device used in thousands of electronic devices the world over.

The team reached this conclusion after reviewing literally thousands of candidate sources over the course of the past year, finally matching the frequency fluctuations precisely that to a fluctuation seen within crystal oscillators, and which gave the signal the illusion of movement through the sky. The precise location of the oscillator in question – and the overall source of the signal – is unlikely to ever be known – it could have been something as simple as a device in a car driving by the Parkes Observatory.

But it so, at least we know it wasn’t being driven by a wayward Proxima Centaurian!

Photographing a “New Born”

Astronomers have captured a remarkable image of a “new born” planet estimated to be just a few million years old.

The planet – 2M0437b – is orbiting a young star some 417 light years from Earth and located within the Taurus Cloud, a well-known “nursery” for planets. The planet is estimated to be several sizes larger than Jupiter, and orbiting its parent around 100 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Nevertheless, its gaseous atmosphere is said to be as hot as a fresh lava flow from a volcano.

It was discovered some three years ago by a Japanese team using the Subaru Telescope, located is at the summit of Hawaii’s Maunakea volcano in Hawaii. However, due to the star’s slow movement relative to Earth, opportunities for confirming it is actually a planetary object and not a rogue body somewhere between Earth and the star were rare.

2M0437b (the bright disk labelled “b”, a hot Jupiter supergiant exoplanet, as imaged by the Subaru Telescope. Credit: Subaru Telescope / National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

The image itself was captured using adaptive optics on the telescope; these allow the majority of the light from the star to be blotted out, hence the coalesced mass of black spots covering the presence of the star, leaving just four arms of light extending out from it. This technique allows the planet’s atmosphere to be illuminated by the star’s light, which also allows scientists to make a degree of determination as to the atmosphere’s composition.

In the future, the likes of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other upcoming space telescopes will help in the study of  2M0437b and other exoplanets in significant detail; but what is particularly exciting for astronomers is that this planet is so young, successive generations will be able to chart its development.

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