America is about to take another step towards being able to launch its own people into orbit again – a capability it’s not had for nearly nine years.
The Boeing company is going to launch a test capsule to the International Space Station (ISS).
Known as Starliner, the vehicle will be flying uncrewed on this occasion.
But if it performs without incident, astronauts will start using the craft next year.
Lift-off atop an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is scheduled for 06:36 local time (11:36 GMT) on Friday.
The automated mission to the ISS should last a week. The capsule will come home to New Mexico, using parachutes and airbags to make a soft landing on desert terrain in the early hours of 28 December.
Not since 2011, when the shuttles were retired, have Americans launched from their own soil; US astronauts have been hitching rides in Russian Soyuz capsules instead.
Starliner is the second of the new systems the American space agency (Nasa) hopes will restore independent human access to low-Earth orbit.
The other crew capsule in development is called Dragon, a product of California’s SpaceX company.
Both should be approved for human use in the first half of 2020.
When that happens, Nasa will start purchasing seats in what will become commercial astronaut taxi services.
Contracting out space transportation in this way is designed to free up money for the agency to concentrate on the harder and more expensive task of getting people to the Moon and Mars.
“Nasa wants to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace for human spaceflight in the future,” said the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine.
“The ultimate goal being we want to drive down costs, increase innovation, and increase access to space in a way that we’ve never seen before.”
Starliner won’t be completely empty on its ascent to orbit.
It will be carrying 270kg of supplies to the ISS – mostly food – and an anthropomorphic test device (ATD), or dummy, nicknamed “Rosie”.
The ATD is covered in sensors to record the onboard environment. “She” will tell engineers how much discomfort a real astronaut might experience during the more violent phases of flight, such as on launch or during landing.
Starliner is going up on the well proven Atlas 5 rocket.
The latest version of this vehicle was developed originally only to launch satellites, but with 80 flights and no losses to its name – there is high confidence in its suitability to launch crew.
The Atlas family of rockets actually has quite a storied history in human spaceflight. They were used in the Mercury programme in the early 1960s.
“John Glenn was launched in the first (American) human orbital mission on an Atlas rocket in 62,” remarked John Elbon, the chief operating officer for United Launch Alliance (ULA), which manufactures the Atlas.
Nasa has seeded Starliner and Dragon under its Commercial Crew Programme (CCP). Boeing and SpaceX were given milestone payments to encourage the development of their capsules.
The vehicles are somewhat late, however; they should have been flying in 2017.
That they are still at the demonstration stage is due in part to Congress squeezing the amount of money the agency could spend on the initiative. But there have also been technical set-backs, such as the explosive destruction of a Dragon capsule on a test stand.
“Building new spacecraft and developing hardware is really hard, right? Folks say it looks like it’s taking a long time, but I think when you go back and look at development history over time, this programme’s been doing a good job of meeting its obligations,” said Nasa manager Kathy Leuders.
Assuming all goes well over the next week, Starliner should get the green light to ferry people to the ISS early next year.
The first crew has already been selected. It will comprise Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, both Nasa employees, and the Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson (Ferguson was the commander on the final shuttle mission and left Nasa to help Boeing develop Starliner).
Mr Finke, who is one of the most experienced astronauts in history with more than a year of his life spent in orbit, said the new astronaut taxis should open up a new era in human spaceflight.
“We crew, we’re looking forward to commercial infrastructure in space because this means more flight assignments for us, which is what we as astronauts really live for. But it’s also more flight assignments for the non-government astronaut types. This is a really interesting time,” he told reporters on Thursday.
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India among 11 ‘countries of concern’ on climate change for U.S. spy agencies
Afghanistan, India and Pakistan were among 11 countries singled out by U.S. intelligence agencies on Thursday as being “highly vulnerable” in terms of their ability to prepare for and respond to environmental and societal crises caused by climate change.
In a new National Intelligence Estimate, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) predicts that global warming will increase geopolitical tensions and risks to U.S. national security in the period up to 2040.
Such estimates are broad U.S. intelligence community assessments. Thursday’s report identifies as particular “countries of concern” Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iraq, North Korea, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia. ODNI posted a declassified version online.
Heat, drought, water availability and ineffective government make Afghanistan specifically worrying. Water disputes are also a key geopolitical flashpoint in India and the rest of South Asia.
The report identifies two additional regions of concern to U.S. intelligence agencies. Climate change is “likely to increase the risk of instability in countries in Central Africa and small island states in the Pacific, which clustered together form two of the most vulnerable areas in the world.”
The report notes disparities around global approaches to tackling climate change, saying countries that rely on fossil fuel exports to support their economies “will continue to resist a quick transition to a zero-carbon world because they fear the economic, political, and geopolitical costs of doing so.”
The report also notes the likelihood of increasing strategic competition over the Arctic. It says that Arctic and non-Arctic states “almost certainly will increase their competitive activities as the region becomes more accessible because of warming temperatures and reduced ice.”
It predicts international competition in the Arctic “will be largely economic but the risk of miscalculation will increase modestly by 2040 as commercial and military activity grows and opportunities are more contested.”
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Frances Kerry)
Mining the moon's water will require a massive infrastructure investment, but should we? – Yahoo News Canada
We live in a world in which momentous decisions are made by people often without forethought. But some things are predictable, including that if you continually consume a finite resource without recycling, it will eventually run out.
Yet, as we set our sights on embarking back to the moon, we will be bringing with us all our bad habits, including our urge for unrestrained consumption.
Since the 1994 discovery of water ice on the moon by the Clementine spacecraft, excitement has reigned at the prospect of a return to the moon. This followed two decades of the doldrums after the end of Apollo, a malaise that was symptomatic of an underlying lack of incentive to return.
That water changed everything. The water ice deposits are located at the poles of the moon hidden in the depths of craters that are forever devoid of sunlight.
Since then, not least due to the International Space Station, we have developed advanced techniques that allow us to recycle water and oxygen with high efficiency. This makes the value of supplying local water for human consumption more tenuous, but if the human population on the Moon grows so will demand. So, what to do with the water on the moon?
There are two commonly proposed answers: energy storage using fuel cells and fuel and oxidizer for propulsion. The first is easily dispensed with: fuel cells recycle their hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis when they are recharged, with very little leakage.
Energy and fuel
The second — currently the primary raison d’être for mining water on the moon — is more complex but no more compelling. It is worth noting that SpaceX uses a methane/oxygen mix in its rockets, so they would not require the hydrogen propellant.
So, what is being proposed is to mine a precious and finite resource and burn it, just like we have been doing with petroleum and natural gas on Earth. The technology for mining and using resources in space has a technical name: in-situ resource utilization.
And while oxygen is not scarce on the moon (around 40 per cent of the moon’s minerals comprise oxygen), hydrogen most certainly is.
Extracting water from the moon
Hydrogen is highly useful as a reductant as well as a fuel. The moon is a vast repository of oxygen within its minerals but it requires hydrogen or other reductant to be freed.
For instance, ilmenite is an oxide of iron and titanium and is a common mineral on the moon. Heating it to around 1,000 C with hydrogen reduces it to water, iron metal (from which an iron-based technology can be leveraged) and titanium oxide. The water may be electrolyzed into hydrogen — which is recycled — and oxygen; the latter effectively liberated from the ilmenite. By burning hydrogen extracted from water, we are compromising the prospects for future generations: this is the crux of sustainability.
But there are other, more pragmatic issues that emerge. How do we access these water ice resources buried near the lunar surface? They are located in terrain that is hostile in every sense of the word, in deep craters hidden from sunlight — no solar power is available — at temperatures of around 40 Kelvin, or -233 C. At such cryogenic temperatures, we have no experience in conducting extensive mining operations.
Peaks of eternal light are mountain peaks located in the region of the south pole that are exposed to near-constant sunlight. One proposal from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab envisages beaming sunlight from giant reflectors located at these peaks into craters.
These giant mirrors must be transported from Earth, landed onto these peaks and installed and controlled remotely to illuminate the deep craters. Then robotic mining vehicles can venture into the now-illuminated deep craters to recover the water ice using the reflected solar energy.
Water ice may be sublimed into vapour for recovery by direct thermal or microwave heating – because of its high heat capacity, this will consume a lot of energy, which must be supplied by the mirrors. Alternatively, it may be physically dug out and subsequently melted at barely more modest temperatures.
Using the water
After recovering the water, it needs to be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen. To store them, they should be liquefied for minimum storage tank volume.
Although oxygen can be liquefied easily, hydrogen liquefies at 30 Kelvin (-243 C) at a minimum of 15 bar pressure. This requires extra energy to liquefy hydrogen and maintain it as liquid without boil-off. This cryogenically cooled hydrogen and oxygen (LH2/LOX) must be transported to its location of use while maintaining its low temperature.
So, now we have our propellant stocks for launching stuff from the moon.
This will require a launchpad, which may be located at the moon’s equator for maximum flexibility of launching into any orbital inclination as a polar launch site will be limited to polar launches — to the planned Lunar Gateway only. A lunar launchpad will require extensive infrastructure development.
In summary, the apparent ease of extracting water ice from the lunar poles belies a complex infrastructure required to achieve it. The costs of infrastructure installation will negate the cost savings rationale for in-situ resource utilization.
Alternatives to extraction
There are more preferable options. Hydrogen reduction of ilmenite to yield iron metal, rutile and oxygen provides most of the advantages of exploiting water. Oxygen constitutes the lion’s share of the LH2/LOX mixture. It involves no great infrastructure: thermal power may be generated by modest-sized solar concentrators integrated into the processing units. Each unit can be deployed where it is required – there is no need for long traverses between sites of supply and demand.
Hence, we can achieve almost the same function through a different, more readily achievable route to in-situ resource utilization that is also sustainable by mining abundant ilmenite and other lunar minerals.
Let us not keep repeating the same unsustainable mistakes we have made on Earth — we have a chance to get it right as we spread into the solar system.
Alex Ellery does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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