Space Sunday: the future of the ISS

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The United States has now formally announced its intention to end the International Space Station that the start of 2031.

The announcement comes on top of confirmation that the Biden-Harris administration has confirmed ISS operations should continue through until the latter half of 2030. In it, the agency confirms that they plan to replace the ISS with at least three commercial space stations under a joint public-private arrangement that will see the new facilities in part built using taxpayer’s funding through NASA, allowing them to be used for both NASA-operated and private sector research and other activities.

These new space stations will be developed during the nine years of remaining life for the ISS, allowing operations to gradually pivoted to them as they are commissioned.

The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space. The report we have delivered to Congress describes, in detail, our comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030.

– Phil McAlister, director of commercial space, NASA

Within the plan, NASA also outline how the ISS is to be through to its end-of-life, and provides a brief summary of some of its achievements, including:

  • Hosting more than 3,000 research investigations from over 4,200 researchers across the world.
  • Allowing 110 countries and to participate in research activities performed aboard the
  • Operating international STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programme that has reached 1.5 million students world-wide each year it has been running.
  • Allowed for major breakthroughs in a range of Earth and space sciences.
The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a ground-breaking scientific platform in microgravity. This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit.

– Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station, NASA

However, there are still bumps in the road in terms of NASA’s planning. Whilst the Biden-Harris administration has green lit the station through until the end of 2030, it is Congress that will largely have the final say in things from the US side – and Congress has mixed views on ISS, a 4-year extension of ISS operations from 2024-2028 having previously proven contentious. Such is the reality of things, there are doubts if some of NASA’s plan can be achieved – something I’ll get to in a moment – which may leave Congress again arguing over the future of the ISS.

Another possible sticking point is continued Russian involvement in the ISS. In 2021, the Russian government and their national space agency, Roscosmos, announced plans to launch their own, independent space station. Currently referred to as the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS), which they planned to have “fully operational” and comprising multiple modules by 2030.

These plans will see Russia launch two modules originally intended for the ISS and called SPM-1/NEM-1 and SPM-2/NEM-2 as the backbone for ROSS. The first of these modules is to be launched in 2024 and the second in 2028. However,  under their original plans, Russia indicated that one SPM-1 was in orbit, they might actually detach the self-propelled Nauka science module together with the Prichal docking module attached to it (both delivered to the ISS in 2021) and move them to dock with the nascent ROSS facility, disrupting ISS operations.

But since then, the timeline for ROSS has been pushed out so that 2035 is now the target for completing 2035, potentially negating any need to remove modules from ISS in the late 2020s. Even so, that Russia is to push ahead with ROSS does level some concerns over their willingness to financially support ISS operations beyond 2028.

An artist’s conception of the Russian Orbital Service Station. Credit: Roscosmos

In terms of private venture facilities to replace the ISS, NASA initially indicated that 11 companies and organisations filed proposals under the agency’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations (CLD) programme. Several of these were rejected for a range of technical and practical issues, whilst three were granted initial seed funding amounting to US $415.6 million.

As I reported in December 2021, these three proposals are from Blue Origin / Sierra Space, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman. Two further proposals received notes of merit by did not gain initial funding. One of these came from – unsurprisingly – SpaceX, who proposed using a variant of their Artemis lunar landing Starship vehicle, but failed to address core requirements – such as environmental support for long-duration missions, support for multiple vehicle docking and external payload handling capabilities.

The second proposal to receive merit came from an unexpected source: Relativity Space. This is 7-year-old start-up I’ve previously mentioned in these pages that is developing a line of expendable and reusable 3D-printed launch vehicles. They proposed perhaps the most novel concept to NASA: a small-scale research laboratory based on their yet-to-fly Terran-R reusable launch vehicle that could be placed in orbit and periodically returned to Earth for refurbishment, upgrade and re-launch.

An artist’s impression of the proposed Blue Origin / Sierra Space Orbital Reef space station. Credit: Blue Origin / Sierra Space
Overall, the CLD programme calls for at least one of the new orbital facilities to be ready to start some level of operation by the end of 2025, and to be ready for a full transition of ISS operations by 2030. And this is where Congress may view things differently.

At the time the initial CLD contracts were awarded, NASA’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) was already casting doubt on whether the time frames for a private sector space station could be achieved:

In our judgment, even if early design maturation is achieved in 2025 — a challenging prospect in itself — a commercial platform is not likely to be ready until well after 2030. We found that commercial partners agree that NASA’s current timeframe to design and build a human-rated destination platform is unrealistic.

– NASA OIG report on commercial space stations, December 2021

Ergo, settling on December 2030 as an end date for ISS operations could again split Congress. On the one side, there might be those who believe the station should be financed beyond 2030 “just in case” alternatives are not available. On the other, the fact that alternatives may not be ready, coupled with recent concerns about issues with the ISS as a result of the increasing age of, and wear-and-tear to, the older modules on the station, might lead to calls for an earlier ISS “retirement” to allow funds to be targeted elsewhere.

But there is a potential alternative to a reliance on one of the CLD stations being rapidly developed. . Axiom Space already has a contract with NASA to launch a new module to the ISS in 2024 on a fixed-price basis. The module would be used for a mix of research and space tourism (Axiom will launch its first private crew to the ISS in March of this year aboard their Ax-1 mission). However, the company has additionally committed itself to developing four further modules, two of which they hope to add to the unit attached to the ISS by 2028 to form an “orbital segment”.

These three modules could then be detached from the ISS in 2030 to form a core of a new space station, to which the remaining to modules would be attached in the early 2030s. If Axiom can carry these plans forward between 2024 and 2030, then they could provide the means for NASA to pivot a fair portion of their ISS activities to the Axiom station and also to the CLD stations as they also come on-line in the 2030s, leaving the way clear for ISS to be decommissioned and de-orbited as announced.

Axiom at the ISS: a artist’s impression of how two Axiom modules, (seen right and centre-right) might look when attached to the Harmony module on the International Space Station. Credit: Axiom

This will actually start in around 2025, while the ISS is still in operation, when a gentle series of manoeuvres will be used to gradually lower the station’s altitude through until 2030. Then, after the last crew has departed the station, NASA intend to use the thrusters from a mix of Progress and Cygnus resupply vehicles to remotely lower the station and orient it so that as the frictional heat increases the larger, more delicate parts of the structure will burn up. The track of entry into the atmosphere will be designed so that what survives re-entry – liable to be a series of large sections falling in close proximity to one another – will fall into the southern Pacific Ocean in a region called Point Nemo between New Zealand and Chile, and 2,672 km from the nearest land, the traditional “graveyard” for objects making controlled returns from low Earth Orbit.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the future of the ISS”

Hera’s superb homage to Blade Runner in Second Life

Blade Runner, February 2022
Hi there, I finally decided to do the sim I have been almost doing for the past 20 years, the original Blade Runner set. Hope you can get along to see it some time just opened it.

From Hera (Zee9)

These are the words that sent me skittering over to Hera’s Full region at the weekend, both as a confirmed fan of her work and because I am also a not only a sci-fi fan, but a great aficionado of Ridley Scott’s outstanding 1982 masterpiece, which has oft cropped up in my chats with Hera.

Blade Runner, February 2022 – “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. A chance to begin again…”

Surprisingly, I don’t actually have an awful lot to say about Blade Runner, located on the ground level of the region, where it replaces the Drune builds that have previously occupied the space; at least, not it terms of my usual style of travelogue piece. This is not because there is more that much to see – rather the reverse in fact; there is so much on offer here that I actually don’t want to spoil things too much for those who, like me, love Hera’s work and greatly enjoy the film. Because this is a setting where things – like the poster advertising the “75th Anniversary Version” are so superbly put together and the region so rich in detail, it absolutely deserves to have its secrets discovered, not merely written about.

That said, I will offer some pointers to things I feel you should keep an eye out for. It’s intentionally not everything, but it is hopefully enough to whet appetites and get people a-visiting. For example, within the familiar, canyon-like streets we have LCD advertising hoardings and bright neon glow over places of work and business along the busy streets in a manner that directly recalls the movie.  However, within them, there are subtle touches. Not only do the brighter ads for the Tyrell Corporation carry Eldon Tyrell’s words More Human than Human as a tagline, while the logo with them incorporates an owl’s head.

Blade Runner, February 2022

More particularly, spot the adverts for Tyrell’s Nexus 6 Pleasure Models and you might notice a distinctly Pris-like character, complete with eyes masked by black pigment as one of the images displayed by the ads.

Nor is Pris alone in being mentioned. Find your way to The Snake Pit, and you might discover a curtained door that provides access to Zhora Salome’s dressing room, complete with her snake awaiting her return. Elsewhere, Roy Batty gets a more direct reference – and quite rightly, given his richer and deeper interactions with Deckard – as his face is displayed on a police Wanted alert – but I’ll leave you to find that.

Blade Runner, February 2022 – “Queen to bishop six. Check.” ; “Knight takes queen. What’s on your mind, Sebastian? What are you thinking?”
As with the movie, this is a cityscape that is dominated by the great angular form of the Tyrell Building, before which great flame stacks periodically belch frame into the smoggy sky, whilst LAPD spinners periodically zip overhead, and cars and automated vehicles trundle along the wider streets, whilst the narrower throughways are home to a market stalls and corner shops that bring a city to life – and offer further reflections on the 1982 film – and other popular genres. Do be sure, for example, to allow the Globe News stand to fully rendered – there are some nice references to the genuine coverage the film gained on sci-fi and film magazines on its release.

Other touches worth looking out for is the advert for PKD Electric Animals, which includes their new line of sheep – it’s a clever reference to Philip K. Dick’s novel that served as an inspiration for the 1982 film. It’s also an advert that contains a further subtle reference that sits well here. It is to the 1979 song written by Gary Numan for his band, Tubeway Army (and a frequent staple of his concerts as solo artist) Are “Friends” Electric? Released in 1979, three years ahead of Blade Runner, it’s a song about androids – replicants – that are so human-like, they are indistinguishable from flesh and blood – and like the replicants of Dick’s novel (and the film), perform all sorts of menial and other tasks. Actually inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the song offers something of the same underlying question: are androids real enough to be friends / companions?

Blade Runner, February 2022

There is so much more to be found within this setting – but as I noted above, I don’t want to give everything away, as this is a setting that you should immerse yourself within, although I will note that Deckard’s car, sitting in the rain but sans nosey police spinner loitering overhead, also awaits those who can find it; and do be sure not to miss the other interiors – a couple are hinted at in images here, and there’s another I’ll just introduce by saying, “Good evening Sebastian!”.

So with that in mind, I’m going to bring this piece to a close and strongly urge anyone who likes Blade Runner, sci-fi and / or Hera’s builds not to miss this. Twenty years in the making it may have been, but it is utterly mesmerising – and make sure you have local sounds enabled with visiting!

Blade Runner, February 2022 – “Do you like our owl?”
Blade Runner, February 2022 – “He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard!” ; “You got the wrong guy, pal.”
Blade Runner, February 2022 – “Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris?”

SLurl Details

Sunday February 6th: Mole Day 2022 in Second Life

The great beacon tower of Pharos, on the east coast of Nautilus. built by Garden Mole, it is one of several builds within Nautilus designed to add to the mythology of the continent and its discovery by Magellan Linden

Sunday, February 6th, 2022, marks the annual Mole Day celebrations in Second Life, and all SL residents are invited to attend festivities at the Bay City Fairgrounds, North Channel.

First held in 2010, Mole Day honours the members of the Linden Department of Public Works (LDPW), affectionately known as the “Moles”, resident builders and scripters contracted by Linden Lab to work on a wide range of (predominantly) in-world projects.

Since their inception, the Moles have have been responsible for many of the larger mainland development projects – most notably Bellisseria and the Linden Homes, although they created many of the more famous sights in Nautilus as well as undertaking initial development of Zindra, the Adult continent, the futuristic-themed Horizons.

Within the Mainland, they also maintain all of the Linden infrastructure etc., and beyond that they also produce Premium membership and have built all of the games and other places accessible via the Portal Parks.

However, their very first project was developing Bay City itself – hence the City’s annual celebration honouring them.

Normally held on the same day as Groundhog Day in the United States, the event is now in its 12th year, and will take place at the Bay City Fairgrounds on February 6th commencing at 11:00 SLT. The event will feature DJ GoSpeed Racer of KONA stream followed by a live performance from Ve Joyy at 12:00 noon SLT.

About Bay City and the Bay City Alliance

Bay City is a mainland community, developed by Linden Lab and home to the Bay City Alliance. The Bay City Alliance was founded in 2008 to promote the Bay City regions of Second Life and provide a venue for Bay City Residents and other interested parties to socialize and network. It is now the largest group for Residents of Bay City.

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