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NASA Solidifies Planning to Deorbit ISS in 2031 –



A month after formally announcing plans to extend operations of the International Space Station to 2030, NASA is making clear that is the end of the road. A new update to its ISS transition plan spells out how that end will play out, with the orbit gradually lowered until the football-field size facility reenters and any surviving pieces fall into the Pacific Ocean in January 2031. After that, NASA will buy whatever human spaceflight services it needs in low Earth orbit from companies expected to be operating their own space stations by then.

In the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (P.L. 115-10), Congress required NASA to submit a transition plan explaining how it will meet its needs for human spaceflight research in LEO after ISS ends. For years the agency’s goal has been to facilitate the emergence of a commercial LEO economy that includes privately built and operated space stations with NASA as one of many customers using them instead of building another government-owned facility.

The law called for the first transition report in December 2017 with updates every two years through 2023. The original version was released a little late, on March 30, 2018, and this one, issued January 31, is NASA’s first update, almost four years later.

A mosaic of the International Space Station using images taken by the departing Crew-2 crew on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour in November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

A lot has happened in between affecting NASA’s future human presence in LEO as the agency shifts its focus to returning astronauts to the Moon and going on to Mars.

For example, in 2020 SpaceX’s Crew Dragon restored the U.S. capability to launch people into orbit after nine years of dependence on Russia following the end of the space shuttle program. In 2021, ISS celebrated 21 years of permanent human occupancy, a testament to the strength of the partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries that has weathered dramatic terrestrial geopolitical changes so far unscathed. Over the past several years, NASA has embraced public-private partnerships for a wide range of human spaceflight activities including successors to ISS. It signed a contract with Axiom Space in 2020 to add a commercial module to the ISS that later will detach and become a free-flying facility, and just two months ago chose three companies, Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman, to design commercial space stations for its Commercial LEO Destinations initiative.

The updated transition report works from the assumption that ISS will last until 2030, hopefully giving one or more of those companies enough time to design, build and launch something to replace at least some of its capabilities.

In the 2017 law, the United States committed to operating ISS at least through 2024. Congressional attempts to pass a new NASA authorization bill and extend that to 2030 have not succeeded, but on December 31, the Biden Administration gave its approval to do just that. A White House commitment isn’t quite as solid as a law, but it is enough for negotiations with the other partners to commence in earnest to get their agreement.

But the ISS is old. The first modules were launched in 1998. The updated transition report asserts the U.S. On-Orbit Segment (USOS) and the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya), which was built by Russia but at U.S. expense and thereby counts as a U.S. module, are in good enough shape to make it to 2030. The report says Russia has certified the modules it owns through 2024 and “will begin work on analyzing extension through 2030.” Nagging leaks in one part of the Russian segment so far have thwarted attempts to seal them. NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, insist they pose no danger to the crew, but if nothing else they illustrate the aging problem.

Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine warned the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last October there is no guarantee the ISS will make it 2030, pushing back on the notion that it might last even longer.

NASA’s bottom line in this report is that “While the ISS will not last forever, NASA expects to be able to operate it safely through 2030.”

Then it will be deorbited. This report lays out that end-of-life process in more detail than in the past. Notionally three Russian Progress cargo spacecraft will be used to lower the ISS’s altitude until it reenters through the Earth’s atmosphere. Reentry is nominally targeted for January 2031 with any pieces that survive the fiery trip falling into the South Pacific Uninhabited Area around Point Nemo.

At 420 Metric Tons, ISS will be the largest structure to make a reentry. Russia’s Mir space station, which operated from 1986-2001, was about 130 MT when it made a controlled reentry into the Pacific on March 23, 2001. The first U.S. space station, Skylab, hosted crews in 1973 and 1974. The approximately 72 MT spacecraft made an uncontrolled reentry in 1979 spreading debris over western Australia and the Indian Ocean. Other space stations launched by the Soviet Union prior to 1986 and more recently by China that have reentered were smaller, though some were still quite sizeable. No one has been injured in any of these reentries.

Not only is ISS old, but it is expensive to operate, about $3 billion a year for NASA. That is another motivation for terminating it although NASA will still need to pay companies to use their facilities.

Congress asked NASA to provide cost estimates in the transition plan for operating the ISS through 2024, 2028 and 2030. In the 2018 report, it showed specific costs for Operations and Maintenance (O&M), research, crew and cargo, and labor and travel.

Budget estimate for ISS through 2030. 2018 ISS Transition Report. Source: NASA

This time it does not give any detail, showing only a “sand chart.”

Budget estimate for ISS through end of life in 2031 plus two years of subsequent commercial LEO services. 2022 ISS Transition Report. Source: NASA

NASA declined to provide any more information, telling by email that “the detailed numbers are not available for public release as they are pre-decisional and procurement sensitive.”

Congress asked NASA to provide an estimate of the deorbit costs and while that item is included in the sand chart, its corresponding monetary value is obscure.

Similarly, the amount of annual cost savings NASA expects to realize by terminating ISS and shifting to commercial services is difficult to quantify based only on that chart. However, Phil McAlister, Director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Division, told a NASA advisory committee meeting on January 19 that NASA estimates it will be about $1.3 million in 2031, the first year, and “if all things go as planned, it will go up to as high as $1.8 billion.”

Getting from here to there will require NASA funding to encourage the commercial sector to invest. After two years of providing only one-tenth of the $150 million requested by the agency for the Commercial LEO Development (CLD) program, Congress appears poised to support it more robustly this year.

NASA requested $101 million for FY2022. In July, the House Appropriations Committee included $45 million for CLD in the FY2022 Commerce-Justice-Science bill that funds NASA. While less than half the request, it is almost three times the $17 million appropriated in FY2021. In October, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full $101 million noting NASA had “finally” offered a rationale and roadmap for the program.

Further action on FY2022 appropriations remains stalled, however. NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that holds the agency at its FY2021 level for now.

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Facial Recognition—Now for Seals – Hakai Magazine



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Have you ever looked at a seal and thought, Is that the same seal I saw yesterday? Well, there could soon be an app for that based on new seal facial recognition technology. Known as SealNet, this seal face-finding system was developed by a team of undergraduate students from Colgate University in New York.

Taking inspiration from other technology adapted for recognizing primates and bears, Krista Ingram, a biologist at Colgate University, led the students in developing software that uses deep learning and a convolutional neural network to tell one seal face from another. SealNet is tailored to identify the harbor seal, a species with a penchant for posing on coasts in haulouts.

The team had to train their software to identify seal faces. “I give it a photograph, it finds the face, [and] clips it to a standard size,” says Ingram. But then she and her students would manually identify the nose, the mouth, and the center of the eyes.

For the project, team members snapped more than 2,000 pictures of seals around Casco Bay, Maine, during a two-year period. They tested the software using 406 different seals and found that SealNet could correctly identify the seals’ faces 85 percent of the time. The team has since expanded its database to include around 1,500 seal faces. As the number of seals logged in the database goes up, so too should the accuracy of the identification, Ingram says.

The developers of SealNet trained a neural network to tell harbor seals apart using photos of 406 different seals. Photo courtesy of Birenbaum et al.

As with all tech, however, SealNet is not infallible. The software saw seal faces in other body parts, vegetation, and even rocks. In one case, Ingram and her students did a double take at the uncanny resemblance between a rock and a seal face. “[The rock] did look like a seal face,” Ingram says. “The darker parts were about the same distance as the eyes … so you can understand why the software found a face.” Consequently, she says it’s always best to manually check that seal faces identified by the software belong to a real seal.

Like a weary seal hauling itself onto a beach for an involuntary photo shoot, the question of why this is all necessary raises itself. Ingram believes SealNet could be a useful, noninvasive tool for researchers.

Of the world’s pinnipeds—a group that includes seals, walruses, and sea lions—harbor seals are considered the most widely dispersed. Yet knowledge gaps do exist. Other techniques to track seals, such as tagging and aerial monitoring, have their limitations and can be highly invasive or expensive.

Ingram points to site fidelity as an aspect of seal behavior that SealNet could shed more light on. The team’s trials indicated that some harbor seals return to the same haulout sites year after year. Other seals, however, such as two animals the team nicknamed Clove and Petal, appeared at two different sites together. Increasing scientists’ understanding of how seals move around could strengthen arguments for protecting specific areas, says Anders Galatius, an ecologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved in the project.

Galatius, who is responsible for monitoring Denmark’s seal populations, says the software “shows a lot of promise.” If the identification rates are improved, it could be paired with another photo identification method that identifies seals by distinctive markings on their pelage, he says.

In the future, after further testing, Ingram hopes to develop an app based on SealNet. The app, she says, could possibly allow citizen scientists to contribute to logging seal faces. The program could also be adapted for other pinnipeds and possibly even for cetaceans.

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NASA launches nanosatellite in preparation for lunar 'Gateway' station – Yahoo News Canada



The rocket carrying the Capstone satellite lifts off. (NASA)

Nasa has launched a tiny CubeSat this week to test and orbit which will soon be used by Gateway, a lunar space station.

It’s all part of the space agency’s plan to put a woman on the moon by 2025.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (Capstone) mission launched from New Zealand on Tuesday.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said: “Capstone is an example of how working with commercial partners is key for Nasa’s ambitious plans to explore the moon and beyond.

“We’re thrilled with a successful start to the mission and looking forward to what Capstone will do once it arrives at the Moon.”

Read more: Astronomers find closest black hole to Earth

The satellite is currently in low-Earth orbit, and it will take the spacecraft about four months to reach its targeted lunar orbit.

Capstone is attached to Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon, an interplanetary third stage that will send it on its way to deep space.

Over the next six days, Photon’s engine will periodically ignite to accelerate it beyond low-Earth orbit, where Photon will release the CubeSat on a trajectory to the moon.

Capstone will then use its own propulsion and the sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way to the Moon.

The gravity-driven track will dramatically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to get to the Moon.

Read more: There might once have been life on the moon

Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for CAPSTONE and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, “Our team is now preparing for separation and initial acquisition for the spacecraft in six days.

“We have already learned a tremendous amount getting to this point, and we are passionate about the importance of returning humans to the Moon, this time to stay!”

At the moon, Capstone will enter an elongated orbit called a near rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO.

Once in the NRHO, Capstone will fly within 1,000 miles of the moon’s north pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the south pole at its farthest.

It will repeat the cycle every six-and-a-half days and maintain this orbit for at least six months to study dynamics.

“Capstone is a pathfinder in many ways, and it will demonstrate several technology capabilities during its mission timeframe while navigating a never-before-flown orbit around the Moon,” said Elwood Agasid, project manager for Capstone at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

“Capstone is laying a foundation for Artemis, Gateway, and commercial support for future lunar operations.”

Nasa estimates the cost of the whole Artemis mission at $28bn.

It would be the first time people have walked on the moon since the last Apollo moon mission in 1972.

Just 12 people have walked on the moon – all men.

Nasa flew six manned missions to the surface of the moon, beginning with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, up to Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt in December 1972.

The mission will use Nasa’s powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft.

Watch: NASA launch paves way for moon orbit station

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The year’s biggest and brightest supermoon will appear in July & here’s when you’ll … – Curiocity



Summer is here and with it? Sunshine – and some serious moonshine (of the visible variety, of course). This upcoming month, look up in anticipation of the biggest and brightest event of the year, the July Buck supermoon – which will hover over North America on July 13th.

Appearing 7% larger and lower in the sky, this particular event will be one well worth keeping an eye on when it rises above the horizon.

This will be the closest we’ll get to our celestial neighbour in 2022 (357,418 km) and while North America won’t get to see it when it reaches peak illumination at 2:38 pm ETC., it’ll still look pretty dang impressive after the sunsets.

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Not sure when the moon rises in your area? Here’s the earliest that you’ll be able to see the moon in various cities across the continent according to the Farmer’s Almanac.

  • Seattle, Washington  – 9:50 pm PDT
  • Vancouver, British Columbia – 10:02 pm PDT
  • Calgary, Alberta – 10:35 pm MST
  • Edmonton, Alberta – 10:49 pm MST
  • Toronto, Ontario – 9:34 pm MST
  • Montreal, Quebec – 9:18 pm MST

Until then, cross your fingers for a clear sky, friends! It’s going to be incredible.

Happy viewing.


When: Wednesday, July 13th

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