Aborting the launch of the Space Shuttle, easy… in theory anyway

Monday, 20 October, 2014

There was a procedure in place to abort a Space Shuttle flight if a problem became apparent on, or immediately, after launch, but it certainly wasn’t a simple matter of switching off the engines, and heading towards a nearby landing strip…

About two minutes into the flight, the SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters] would burn out and then be jettisoned. The SSMEs [Space Shuttle Main Engines] would continue to burn fuel from the ET [External Tank] until about eight and a half minutes after liftoff. For missions with a particularly heavy payload, the two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines could be fired during ascent to help the shuttle aloft. The OMS engines were also used later to adjust the shuttle’s orbit, including the deorbit burn that brought it home at the end of the mission. After Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), the shuttle would jettison the empty ET, which would disintegrate as it tumbled back to Earth. That’s all there was to it. What could possibly go wrong?

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Establishing a human colony on Mars, not so straightforward?

Friday, 17 October, 2014

I was quite excited about the Mars One idea, when I first heard of it a couple of years ago. Both pioneering and audacious, the project founders proposed sending four people at a time to Mars in 2024, followed by another group every two years thereafter, gradually establishing a human colony on the red planet in the process.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, analysis of the concept, based on what is currently known publicly, however finds the plan, to be unsustainable. In short they conclude that Mars One is trying to achieve too much, too soon:

The lead author, Sydney Do, a Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said via email that in his view “the Mars One Concept is unsustainable” because of the current state of technology and its “aggressive expansion approach” of quickly adding more and more people rather than keeping the settlement at a fixed size for a period of time.

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The Cosmonaut’s survival kit, but for survival where exactly?

Thursday, 9 October, 2014

Cosmonauts on Soviet Soyuz spacecraft flights were issued with survival kits that included among other things, pistols and ammunition, fishing gear, compasses, knives, medical kits, and fire starters. And not for use on some inhabited alien planet they may have chanced upon mind you, but planet Earth…

The pistol was intended to scare off “wolves, bears, tigers, etc.” on the event of a crash landing. Later Soviet survival kits expanded to include fishing tackle, improved cold suits, royal blue knit caps with the Cyrillic initials of each cosmonaut (shades of The Life Aquatic) and “ugh boots” lined with fur.

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In space no one can sleep… or rather sleep all that well

Tuesday, 19 August, 2014

Crews aboard long haul space flights, such as trips to Mars, should one, be introverts, and two, be possessed of the gene variant that allows them to function on less sleep than others since space, it seems, is not particularly conducive to slumber

Researchers tracked the sleep patterns of 85 crew members aboard the ISS and space shuttle and found that despite an official flight schedule mandating 8.5 hours of sleep per night, they rarely got more than five. In fact, getting a full night’s rest was so difficult that three-quarters of shuttle mission crew members used sleep medication, and sometimes entire teams were sedated on the same night.

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If we can’t go to the stars maybe they can come to us

Friday, 15 August, 2014

Even the Stars screen cap

Wandering through space without a purpose. Getting old and getting lost. That’s what interstellar space exploration might actually be like, given the time it’ll take to get anywhere… a game by Pol Clarissou.

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The greatest space flight hacks to date

Thursday, 14 August, 2014

Photo by NASA

We all know that the Apollo 13 Moon mission was essentially one long space flight hack that returned the crew safely home, but there have been other instances of space missions going awry for one reason or another, even if the problems have not been of quite the same severity.

In April 1985, nine months before the Challenger disaster, the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the satellite Leasat-3. With the shuttle doors open, it drifted away. But within minutes it was clear that something was wrong: the satellite’s antennae had failed to deploy. Rather than abandon the $85m satellite, the crew set to work putting together a less-than-sophisticated device that could be used to poke the satellite to activate a lever on its side. Dubbed the “fly swatter”, this improvised space stick was constructed using clear plastic covers from spacecraft manuals, sticky tape and a metal pole.

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We set forth for the stars in search of a massive diamond

Friday, 4 July, 2014

The discovery of a diamond the size of a white dwarf star, simply drifting through space, some nine hundred light years away from Earth, might just be enough to motivate some to solve the problems of interstellar travel…

The biggest diamond ever found in the universe, whose discovery was announced this week, has no name, will never be cut, and weighs approximately a million trillion trillion pounds. This makes it as massive as the sun, and no wonder: it’s the corpse of a star that once looked very much like the sun, lying nine hundred or so light-years from Earth.

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A model of NASA’s faster than light ship… and it is the Enterprise

Thursday, 19 June, 2014

What you can go and see here is a model of an actual faster-than-the-speed-of-light space ship that NASA is said to be designing. I’m not sure if an actual, workable, way to travel faster than light speed has been found, but I guess there’s no harm in giving thought to the sort of vessel that will, eventually perhaps, be used.

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How many people might it take to to colonise another star system?

Tuesday, 15 April, 2014

Because I enjoy this type of conjecture and know you do as well. You’re sending humans on a multi-generational, two thousand year long, voyage to colonise a habitable planet in a distant star system. How many people do you place on the vessel?

It had been suggested, a little over ten years ago, that a crew of one hundred and fifty might be sufficient, but a more recent analysis of the question puts the figure at closer to forty thousand.

That would make for a pretty big ship, unless you sent a fleet (fewer eggs in the same basket as it were), but whatever way it is looked at, setting up a human colony outside the solar system would be, or is going to be, a huge undertaking.

The nearest star systems – such as our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light-years from home – are so far that reaching them would require a generational starship. Entire generations of people would be born, live, and die before the ship reached its destination. This brings up the question of how many people you need to send on a hypothetical interstellar mission to sustain sufficient genetic diversity.

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Was a Space Shuttle Columbia rescue mission possible?

Thursday, 6 March, 2014

While mission controllers knew that the Space Shuttle Columbia would probably break up on its return to Earth in February 2003, they decided not to tell the crew of the danger, reasoning that there was little they could do to save them.

It seems though a rescue mission, using the Space Shuttle Atlantis, was “considered challenging but feasible”, though it depended on preparing Atlantis in enough time to reach Columbia, before the spaceborne craft’s life support systems failed.

One problem confronting mission controllers trying to plan a rescue was not a shortage of oxygen or water as such, but rather the build-up of carbon dioxide that would ensue, in the keeping of Columbia in a low powered orbit until Atlantis could reach it:

How long those 69 canisters would last proved difficult to estimate, though, because there isn’t a lot of hard data on how much carbon dioxide the human body can tolerate in microgravity. Standard mission operation rules dictate that the mission be aborted if CO2 levels rise above a partial pressure of 15 mmHg (about two percent of the cabin air’s volume), and mission planners believed they could stretch Columbia‘s LiOH canister supply to cover a total of 30 days of mission time without breaking that CO2 threshold. However, doing so would require the crew to spend 12 hours of each day doing as little as possible – sleeping, resting, and doing everything they could to keep their metabolic rates low.

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