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by   -   November 21, 2016
Helium balloons are being used to carry people, experiments and satellite launchers into near space. Image courtesy of Zero2Infinity
Helium balloons are being used to carry people, experiments and satellite launchers into near space. Image courtesy of Zero2Infinity

Space will soon be within the grasp of everyday people, small countries, researchers or start-up companies thanks to a fleet of low-cost launch vehicles under development across Europe.

From remote control drones that can fire rockets into orbit from the edge of space, to giant helium balloons that could carry tourists, science experiments or satellite launchers into the stratosphere, small-scale start-ups are stepping into the control room and embarking on a new low-cost space race.

It represents an exciting new wave of space travel, following in the vapour trails of private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

The Issue

The EU is aiming to encourage private companies to develop low-cost launch systems as part of its Space Strategy for Europe announced in October this year.

The objective of EU funding for research into space technologies is to enable Europe to access space independently and affordably, and strengthen the capability of European scientists and engineers.

Between 2014 and 2020, it plans to spend over EUR 12 billion on three space programmes – satellite navigation, earth observation and space research.

Where once only global superpowers with vast budgets could go, Europe’s entrepreneurs and innovators will soon be travelling for a fraction of the cost.

One of these innovators is Zero 2 Infinity, a Spanish start-up working on helium balloon-borne spacecraft.

‘It’s the cheaper way because it’s more efficient, you need fewer engineers to build it,’ explained Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, chief executive.

Near space

The idea is that the balloon would carry a passenger pod into what is known as near space, somewhere between 20 km and 100 km above the earth’s surface, or carry its small rocket-powered Bloostar spacecraft which it could then launch much higher into low-earth orbit.

Zero 2 Infinity customers are already balloon launching satellites for short periods of high-altitude testing, and the company has EUR 140 million in expressions of interest for full satellite launches.

It was the leader of the EU-backed HELIUM project, which developed the concept for a near-space European laboratory that allows orbiting research at 36 km, and the life support system for the two pilots in the initial six-hour flights.

Although space tourists could soon be using the balloon launch system to take selfies in near space, the first passengers are likely to be scientists, according to Lopez-Urdiales.

Aiming higher than the balloon satellite launcher’s range of 600 km, Europe’s ALTAIR project is readying the blueprints for a remote-controlled aircraft which would use a rocket launch module to blast sub-200 kilogramme satellite payloads into orbit and take off in 2020 at the earliest.

Runway

ALTAIR’s launch system — similar to Virgin Galactic’s piloted White Knight 2 space tourism aircraft in appearance and general function — would take off from a runway, before ferrying satellites up to an altitude of 12-15 km and igniting its rocket payload.

But the similarities end there. ALTAIR project manager Nicolas Bérend says the project is focused on affordable, remote-controlled launches, calling on the experience of French space centres CNES and Onera, creators of the Eole automated launch aircraft demonstrator which is the project’s precursor.

By the end of the EU-funded program in 2018, the six-country collaboration will have a final concept for the unmanned aircraft, its hybrid propulsion engine rocket launcher and ground operations, and will demonstrate its launch technology by doing suborbital tests using a scale model.

‘If Europe does not take the chance now, then we may lose this possibility.’

Bertil Oving, Netherlands Aerospace Centre

By removing the human pilot and designing a facility geared towards a high launch frequency and minimal staffing, they hope to bring down the costs enough to make the project economically viable.

‘It is essential to the project’s success to restrict launch costs to around EUR 4 million, a price the team’s market analysts consider to be a competitive launch price,’ said Bérend.

That should give them access to a growing market for small satellite launches, often in the form of so-called CubeSats, nanosatellites normally no more than 10 centimetres wide, a market where Europe is lagging behind at the moment.

Even though Europe covers large-to-medium launches with its Ariane 6 and Vega rockets, and suborbital rockets from the Andøya launch site in Norway, it has no small-satellite solution.

‘The small satellites are all launched outside of Europe with Russian or Indian launchers,’ said Bertil Oving, of the Netherlands Aerospace Centre. ‘There is a small-satellite market, it’s booming and if Europe does not take the chance now, then we may lose this possibility.’

He is the coordinator of SMILE, an EU-funded project designing a small-scale launcher for satellites of up to 50 kg.

SMILE will design and start component testing of a standard-format rocket, along with the necessary upgrades to the Andøya facility, by 2019, keeping costs below EUR 50 000 per kilogramme launched, and hopefully cutting the expensive wait for satellites to be able to piggyback on one of the larger rockets.

3D printing

Larger rockets benefit from an economy of scale, and SMILE’s competitiveness would come from advances in reusable components, automated composite manufacturing, 3D printing and also high-volume production.

‘The payload versus the total mass becomes smaller when the launcher is smaller, so it’s a cost aspect challenge,’ said Oving.

He said SMILE is pushing advances in reusable liquid-fuelled engines and its automated manufacturing advances would have automotive and aviation industry uses, but he thinks the biggest implications of low-cost, low-orbit access will be for consumers.

‘The idea for small satellites like CubeSats is to approach them like FedEx & DHL,’ he said. ‘We will simply bring it to where you want to have it.’

European organisations may soon make it easier to get equipment into near space and low-earth orbit.
European organisations may soon make it easier to get equipment into near space and low-earth orbit.

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by   -   October 20, 2016
Image: ESA
Image: ESA/ATG medialab

In Darmstadt, Germany, European Space Agency (ESA) teams are scrambling to confirm contact with the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM), Schiaparelli—the spectre of Philae still haunting the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC). Whether or not ESA ever speak to Schiaparelli again, the risky business of space robotics is once more laid bare.

Editors note: Since this article was written, ESA are attempting to decode a partial signal from the EDM

interview by   -   September 17, 2016

crlzkinumaaqxel

In this episode, Ron Vanderkley interviews Jürgen “Juxi” Leitner, a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Robots Vision in the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Leitner speaks about a system being developed for the Google Lunar XPrize, called LunaRoo.

by   -   April 7, 2016
What are you thinking? Robots and humans working together need to understand – and even trust – each other. NASA Johnson/flickr
What are you thinking? Robots and humans working together need to understand – and even trust – each other. NASA Johnson/flickr

If we are serious about long-term human presence in space, such as manned bases on the moon or Mars, we must figure out how to streamline human-robot interactions.

by   -   November 12, 2014
Still image from animation of Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014 (photo:ESA)
Still image from animation of Philae separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014 (photo:ESA)

UPDATE: ESA’s Rosetta mission has soft-landed its Philae probe on to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The signal confirming the successful touchdown arrived on Earth at 16:03 GMT (17:03 CET), it’s the first time in history that such an extraordinary feat has been achieved and it’s a great milestone for space exploration and Europe. Read here the full press release from ESA.

LIVE VIDEO FEED | In a few hours a major milestone in space exploration will take place when the Rosetta orbiter deploys a small robotic lander named Philae towards comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This is the first time a spacecraft will reach the surface of a comet and, if successful, will greatly increase our knowledge in this field. Rosetta was launched over 10 years ago and followed an extremely complex trajectory with deep space maneuvers that used the gravity of Earth and Mars to propel it alongside its target and successfully orbit around it. Now the next step, Philae’s landing, will be transmitted live. See the video feed below.

by   -   October 29, 2014
Orbital Science corp. Antares orb-3, pre-launch (photo: NASA)
Orbital Science corp. Antares orb-3, pre-launch (photo: NASA)

A very unfortunate incident for NASA and the commercial orbital transportation services program took place yesterday. The Antares rocket that was about to send the Cygnus spacecraft on the ISS exploded a few seconds after its launch from NASA’s Wallops flight facilities. No casualties or even small injuries were reported, although the area is being contained and treated with caution. It is a major incident for US spaceflight that breaks a trouble-free period and could have important implications for the private spaceflight sector.

by ,   -   June 26, 2014

Curiosity-Self-Portrait-at-'Windjana'-Drilling-Site

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover captures a selfie to mark a full Martian year – 687 Earth days – spent exploring the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Robots, selfies and remote connectedness … It may be a lonely place to celebrate an anniversary, but on June 24th, Curiosity made the universe that much smaller – and robots that much more ubiquitous – by snapping a selfie to mark its one year anniversary on planet Mars. This photo will surely go down in history as a sign of the times.

To help celebrate Curiosity’s achievements, we’ve compiled a brief list of links, articles and videos that show just how far the Mars mission has come.

by   -   May 29, 2014

dragon_alone_on_stage

Tonight at 7PM PT SpaceX will reveal Dragon V2 -their next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to space.

UPDATE: read our de-briefing of the presentation below

by   -   April 16, 2014

robohub29

Special thanks again to “NateFan”, whose comment inspired today’s comic.

I hope the characters referenced from NASA are good sports, I figured they’d crack up over Nate’s “findings” regarding facial expressions in near zero gravity.

by   -   March 7, 2014

robohub28

In the comments below, tell me, what questions would researchers want answered about Nate’s experiences on Mars? I’ll select the best and make comics out of them (showing how Nate answers) in the next few weeks, and we can find out what kind of trouble Nate gets into . . .

by   -   February 28, 2014

robohub27

I guess all those other Mars rovers just landed in the wrong spot? I had this idea yesterday to try something a little different. In the comments below, tell me, what questions would researchers want answered about Nate’s experiences on Mars? I’ll select the best and make comics out of them (showing how Nate answers) in the next few weeks, and we can find out what kind of trouble Nate gets into . . .

by   -   February 21, 2014

robohub26

The mission to Mars concludes now that Nate is back on Earth, but do you think the adventure is really over?  Learn more about Nate’s wacky life at his Website.

by   -   February 17, 2014

robohub25

 

Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion of Nate’s “mission to Mars” experience.  As always, remember you can see more at Nate’s Website.

by   -   February 7, 2014

robohub24

I want to thank Robonaut for being a great sport and being willing to appear in this week’s comic!  When I got done with last week’s comic, for fun I sent a tweet to Robonaut asking him to join Nate for a little “space jam” competition, and he was all in!  The problem is, I found out that Robonaut is a little larger than I expected!!!  Check out the conversation

by   -   January 31, 2014

robohub23

 

We all know that the first thing we’d want to do on a planet with low gravity is a Michael Jordon dunk.

As always, remember you can see more at Nate’s Website.





Sphero
December 14, 2012


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