November 8, 2013
“Thank you for coming to my personal therapy session,” former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria joked at yesterday’s discussion on the “overview effect” at the National Air and Space Museum. He explained that people like himself, a Navy pilot, and fellow panelist Sandy Magnus, who has a PhD in materials science and engineering, are chosen by NASA to be astronauts largely for their technical skill, not their ability to “communicate touchy-feely things.” Which makes it difficult to translate the profound psychological effect that seeing Earth from above has on a person. (Or as Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway remarks, “They should have sent a poet.“)
The event began with a showing of Overview, a documentary on the effect released last year by the Planetary Collective. The 20-minute film, viewed nearly four million times, was a stepping stone to their upcoming feature-length documentary, Continuum, about our “interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe.”
It’s all a bit lovey-dovey, but astronauts who have gone to orbit over the last half-century have made it clear that seeing our planet from a vantage point in space flips some kind of switch in your brain. And while many of us may be awed by spectacular photos taken from the space station cupola and stretching all the way back to Earthrise, the powerful feeling of seeing it live just cannot be duplicated, they tell us.
After spending four and a half months floating around in microgravity as a crewmember of Expedition 18 in 2008-2009, Magnus came back to Earth to this “horrible, monstrously oppressive force” we call gravity. “My first thought was ‘oh my God, how do we get anything done on this planet??‘,” she said. It’s a feeling we can imagine but cannot experience the way an astronaut does. As Magnus put it, you know a stove is hot, but you can’t fully comprehend the concept until you’ve put your hand on the burner.
Frank White, a panel member who coined the term “overview effect” and wrote a book about it in 1987, believes that it’s crucial we find a way to translate it for the general populace. The effect, he says, “is a message to us human beings about who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.” Astronauts frequently have four particular epiphanies of awareness, according to panelist David Beaver, one of the founders of the The Overview Institute: the thinness of the atmosphere (Magnus said the paper-thin layer of atmosphere nearly skimming the planet’s surface was her very first thought upon opening the shuttle payload bay doors on her first trip to space), the interactivity of the biosphere, the smallness of Earth in space, and, perhaps surprisingly, the roundness of the Earth — another concept we understand in the post-Columbus era, but don’t really experience in our everyday lives.
The Institute’s goal is simple: To get people on this planet to realize we’re all living on “spaceship Earth” together, and that we need to care for the planet before we all become homeless together. Perhaps if our world leaders all took an orbit on the space station, said Lopez-Alegria, the idea of world citizenship over national citizenship would take hold, and the only thing left to wonder would be why it took us so long to realize it in the first place. Lopez-Alegria is now the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and hopes this new industry will “democratize access to space” so that regular folk — including the poets — can have the experience, and not just millionaire space tourists. (On the other hand, if you want to send a message that space tourism will continue to be a rich- people thing, NBC Universal’s press release today proclaiming, “Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television,” is exactly how you go about it.)
Lopez-Alegria cited the XCOR’s suborbital Lynx and World View’s newly-announced stratosphere balloon ride as (hopefully) relatively affordable options that will give regular people an opportunity to experience the overview effect. White, meanwhile, hopes that an organization like the Overview Institute might one day be able to offer scholarships to the kinds of people that might have the unique ability to communicate the feeling to those of us who remain gravity-bound.
August 27, 2013
It was fascinating watching space station astronauts re-create the recent water leak inside ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s helmet that cut short a planned spacewalk and led to some very tense moments for the crew.
Engineers are still trying to figure out what caused the leak. As today’s video shows, the suit still has a problem:
If you haven’t yet read Parmitano’s harrowing account of the incident, you should. Here’s an excerpt:
The water has…almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision….At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Parmitano’s ordeal reminded me of another incident, far less serious, that astronaut Carlos Noriega described in our 2002 book Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years. Even a single drop of water can be a hassle in a spacesuit.
Toward the end of my EVA on STS-97, about two-thirds of the way through deploying the space station’s new solar power array, I went to take a sip of water from a tube inside my helmet. It went down the wrong way, and I coughed. Well, the little droplet of water took a perfect trajectory from my mouth to the inside of the helmet, where it bounced off and went into my eye. We coat the inside of our helmets with a thin coat of soap so they don’t fog up. And the droplet picked up just enough soap that it severely irritated my eye, to the point where I couldn’t see out of it anymore.
I suspected what had happened, but I wasn’t sure. At the time, Mission Control was concerned that maybe it could be a break in the lithium hydroxide system that cleans the carbon dioxide from the air we breathe, or maybe something else floating around in my suit.
I felt fairly comfortable, other than the fact that my eye hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The bad thing about zero-g is that the tearing mechanism doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to. The droplet just stays there in your eye, and doesn’t run down your cheek. I thought about shaking my head, but then there’s the potential that you’re going to get it in the other eye. It took a long time to dilute, and by that point the EVA was over. I’m one of those people who’s very sensitive to irritants, and my wife just laughed later, “You and your eyes.”
June 4, 2013
As the saying goes, it’s tough to turn a big ship. That’s why an experiment last winter that required shifting the International Space Station’s attitude became an important lesson in what it takes to move a million-pound structure in space. According to European Space Agency operations engineers Nadia This and Denis Van Hoof, an undertaking like this requires patience and preparation — not to mention a few gutsy scientists.
The move was to accommodate an ESA experiment called SOLAR, a nickname for the “Sun Monitoring on the External Payload Facility of Columbus” project, which measures sun activity and radiation. Mounted to the outside of the station, SOLAR normally can rotate to keep the sun in view for 14 days in a row — called a Sun Visibility Window. But eventually the station’s orientation changes so that it blocks the sun, sometimes for up to 25 days.
During a meeting of the SOLAR team in 2010, one of the heliophysicists mentioned it was a pity the instrument couldn’t see a full 27-day rotation of the sun, especially now that it’s in the active phase of its 11-year cycle. Couldn’t they move the space station to point the instrument at it for that long?
At least they could ask.
“For scientific investigators, the sky is the limit,” says Van Hoof. “They will propose whatever crazy idea they might have. Of course there is a filter in between. Two years ago, I talked with my team leader about this, and he said ‘let’s make a technical [description of the procedure], but I’m pretty sure this is not going to get through.’ ”
Fortunately, celestial timing favors SOLAR twice a year. Around the summer and winter solstices, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point relative to the celestial equator, the blackout period shortens to just eight days. So if the team could move the station for just those days, they could combine two observation windows back-to-back, and see a full rotation of the sun.
Adjustments to the ISS orbit are carefully planned and executed in collaboration with the five international partners and their scientific communities. Because many sensitive instruments are mounted outside and inside, changing the station’s orientation might mean exposing them to different radiation, temperature fluctuations, drag and other hazards, not to mention changing their own planned targeting. The station can fly in three flight attitudes, but some instruments are only rated to fly a limited number of hours in certain configurations.
Station managers also needed to consider everything from the position of the station’s robotic arm to the amount of momentum stored in the station’s control gyros (read more about ISS steering here)
After two years of planning and negotiations, the move was approved. “I don’t know if we got lucky or if it’s politics now, but the ISS program is really wanting to show that they are there for science,” Van Hoof says.
Last fall, with all the parameters set and the SOLAR experiment ready, the station prepared to move. On November 19, SOLAR came out of shadow and began recording the sun. On December 1, the station spent about two hours shifting seven degrees, holding the angle for 10 days before returning to its regular position. The team was able to gather 35 straight days of observations.
The science team is still analyzing their data, but they noticed changes in the sun’s activity in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, related to newly forming sunspots, Van Hoof says. A full rotation provides a much more complete data set that the team can use to compare with other solar-observing experiments, such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The team was so pleased with the results that they hope to perform the maneuver again during the summer solstice later this month.
May 13, 2013
Somebody had to do it.
Commander Chris Hadfield returns to Earth this evening, along with Expedition 34/35 crewmates Dr. (not Major) Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko. NASA TV coverage of their departure from the International Space Station begins at 3:30.
December 3, 2012
The first humans that head out to Mars might never set foot on the planet. Instead, they could orbit on a Martian space station, where the astronauts remotely command robots working on the planet’s harsh surface. Operating from an orbiting platform — one that’s already set up to support humans, because they flew to Mars inside it — would give the astronauts a wide field of view; they could send robots almost anywhere on the planet and change course as needed, without having to find the kind of safe route that people would require. Indeed, these robots would find it for us.
Astronauts are starting to test these techniques now, except instead of operating robots from low-Mars orbit, they’re driving Lego rovers in Germany from the International Space Station. In late October, then-station commander Sunita Williams opened a laptop and sent the terrestrial toy through a short obstacle course. The tricky part is not the remote operation itself, though it requires some training (no doubt the Mars Curiosity drivers could offer some tips), it’s the infrastructure needed to transmit the signal: the interplanetary Internet.
“The history of space communications is largely what we call point-to-point — we point a big antenna on Earth up at a spacecraft, squirt commands up to it, and we get telemetry back,” explains Adrian Hooke, NASA’s project manager for Space DTN (Disruption Tolerant Networking). He adds that the Mars Curiosity rover is a step ahead of this, using two Mars orbiters as communication relays. “But what we want is a more Internet-like system… of pretty ubiquitous communications, anywhere you want to go.”
You’re reading this blog post thanks to a nearly 40-year-old technology called Internet Protocol (IP). Information travels in packets, hopping from router to router, but if a router has nowhere to send the data because the next router is down, it simply discards those packets.
DTN, however, aims to be a more careful, and thus more reliable system. When mission control on Earth is waiting for a commander’s update from Mars, or when astronauts are carefully constructing our first Martian base from 200 miles up, they don’t want to risk losing any of that data forever if a router burps. So DTN uses Bundle Protocol (BP) — the IP of the interplanetary Internet. Here, when a router receives data packets, it stores them until the next hop becomes available. If the delays are large — due to the vast distances between planets, or because a Mars orbiter is on the far side of the planet — DTN can use a secondary system, called Licklider Transmission Protocol (LTP), which will store the data even if the sender has to go offline before the transmission is complete.
When Williams instructed the Lego rover in Germany to move, the command went from her laptop to the space station’s communications terminal, where a DTN access point began, operated by the University of Colorado. Then it went to NASA’s fleet of tracking and relay satellites, which transmitted the data packets to ground stations in White Sands, New Mexico, then to NASA’s operations center in Huntsville, Alabama, and on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where they hopped the pond to the European Space Agency’s user support center in Belgium, and finally to ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany. Then the Lego rover moved. Measurements confirming the movement then traveled the reverse route back to Williams.
“Each one of those was a DTN ‘hop,’” Hooke says. “Sunita steered the robot around some obstacles, and got some very basic data back from the rover…given all those hops, it probably took a couple seconds round trip. She probably saw the response three seconds after she sent the commands.”
For this test, NASA’s DTN team worked with ESA’s METERON project, Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network, which is focused on developing astronaut “telepresence” — operating robots remotely. The ESA hopes that in the coming year or so, astronauts will be tele-operating “Justin,” an android, from the space station.
Eventually, the DTN developed for space could be used by regular folks here on Earth in times of emergency, when communication links are disrupted or jammed, such as during a hurricane or terrorist attack. But NASA’s sights are set far from home. Hooke says interplanetary probes like the Saturn-orbiting Cassini and the upcoming Juno mission to Jupiter, could be repurposed by uploading them with DTN software after their science missions are done. That way, they can serve as Internet nodes throughout the solar system.
“There is nothing inherent in the network that can constrain how far out you can go. It’s more [constrained by] the patience of human beings to wait for a response,” he says.
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