A few days prior to seeing this article I had expressed my concern in the post SECOND CREW REACH TIANGONG-3 that the Chinese Space Station, Tiangong-3, would outlive the ISS by several years.
Fortunately, NASA has committed to extending the life of the ISS until at least 2030. This will maintain the West’s ongoing presence in space for several years. The rational for the extension is stated clearly in this quote from the NASA Authorization Act of 2015.
It is the policy of the United States to maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight and operations in low-Earth orbit, and beyond, as an essential instrument of national security and the capability to ensure continued United States participation and leadership in the exploration and utilization of space…
(See my other posts on Robots) – Today’s Cygnus cargo flight with 7,600 pounds of science, supplies & cargo for the ISS includes a pair of new robots. These will replace the current SPHERES robots on the International Space Station (ISS). The Astrobee robots have been developed by the Intelligent Robotics Group at the NASA Ames Research Center.
The new Astrobee robots are autonomous cubes designed to be flown around the ISS. The first pair of Astrobee robots are named Honey and Bumble. A third named Queen is scheduled to fly to the ISS later this year. These are very modular robots with hardware and software designed for a wide range of tasks and experiments.
The robots are intended to fly around the ISS autonomously, perform experiments, and take video. While they will generally be operated by humans from the ground, they will occasionally operate without any supervision.
Each Astrobee robot is about 12 inches (30 cm) square. They will use pressurized air from 12 different nozzles to propel themselves around the ISS. They can rotate in any direction and have no need to refuel as air is compressed and used from the ISS atmosphere.
The Astrobees are based on ROS and are equipped with six cameras, sensors, and enough computing power to allow them to operate autonomously. They can be fitted with modular payloads in their three different payload bays for a variety of experiments. Later this year a small arm will become available for manipulating objects and grabbing hold for maintaining their position. The robots will be able to undock, redock and perch within the ISS independently of the crew.
The robots should complete their checkout before the end of April. After that, they will map and be calibrated for the ISS modules. Final commissioning of the entire Astrobee system should be complete before the end of the year.
If you are interested in space, you may have tried to get away from the city lights and look up at the night sky. One of the bright objects in orbit is the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is in a fast orbit of the Earth, traveling at over 17,000 mile per hour. This means that the ISS completes an orbit about every 90 minutes. If you are in a spot that is relatively free of light pollution, seeing the ISS is easy.
To plan ahead for such an excursion you can use the “Spot the Station” site from NASA. You can enter where you will be into the site and it will then give you a list of the dates and times the ISS will be visible from that location. The site also gives you directions as to where to look for the ISS in the evening sky.
You can even sign up for alerts for when the ISS will be passing within view of your location. Taking advantage of this would be a great way to involve kids in STEM activities. For me the current closest location with a list of sighting opportunities is for Georgetown, TX, just a few miles north of where I live. The next viewing opportunities will be at:
Nothing really exciting in the video above, but it is a graphic reminder that there are several countries with very active space efforts. This shows a launch of the Japanese Kounotori 6 spacecraft taking 4.5 tons of supplies to the ISS.
The launch was conducted a few hours ago and will dock with the ISS on December 13. Aboard the craft is food, water, spare parts and experimental hardware. While these supplied are not critical to the ISS crew, the arrival will be timely since the last Russian supply ship failed during the launch.
On September 15, 2016 China launched Tiangong-2 into orbit. Later in October a two man crew will be launched to dock with the laboratory module. The crew will stay on-board for a month conducting experiments in medicine, physics and biology. This module and its predecessor Tiangong-1, are prototypes for the much larger and permanent 20-ton space station the Chinese are planning to put into space around 2020. This will be about the time that the ISS is currently scheduled to be retired.
Tiangong-2 is 34 feet in length and 11 feet in diameter. The module is also equipped with a robot arm to assist with connecting modules and scientific equipment. A cargo spacecraft flight to resupply tiangong-2 is planned for the late spring of 2017.
The latest SpaceX launch has been another success! Not only did the first stage successfully complete a landing back at NASA’s Cape Canaveral complex, but it also made significant deliveries to the ISS.
Most important amongst the Dragon capsule 5000 pounds of cargo was the International Docking Adapter. Presently, only Russian spacecraft can dock with the ISS. The International Docking Adapter will open up the ISS to mating with spacecraft from a variety of countries and private organizations such as SpaceX. An adapter was originally sent up last summer, but it was on the ill-fated Falcon 9 that broke apart only minutes after launch.
Other experiments among the cargo is:
a small DNA sequencer
living heart cells to test how they perform in zero gravity
muscle and bone loss
a phase-change material to be tried as a heat exchanger to regulate temperature on the ISS