Bloostar: Launching Satellites via Balloon

AistechSat-1

Is there a better way to get to space? Current traditional methods using expendable rockets launching from the surface of the Earth are terribly inefficient. About 90% of the bulk and mass of what you see on the launch pad is expended in the first few minutes of the mission, just getting the tiny payload above the murk of Earth’s atmosphere and out of the planet’s gravity well.

One idea that’s been out there for a while is to loft a launch platform into the upper atmosphere, and simply start from there. One Spanish-based company named Zero2infinity plans to do just that.

Recently, on May 20th, 2016, Zero2infinity lofted Aistech’s first satellite into the upper atmosphere, aboard its Sub-Orbital Platform in Near Space balloon system. Zero2infinity uses these Near Space balloons to carry client payloads up above 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is a cheap and effective way to get payloads into a very space-like environment.

These near Space Balloon platforms typically reach an altitude of 28 kilometres (17 miles) above the surface of the Earth. For reference, the Armstrong Line (where the boiling point of water equals human body temperature) starts 18 kilometers up, and the Kármán line — the internationally recognized boundary where space begins — starts at an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles up.

Most satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) go around the Earth 300 to 600 kilometers up, and the International Space Station resides in a 400 by 400 kilometer standard orbit.

The mission of Aistechsat-1 is to “provide thermal images of the Earth and also help with maritime and aeronautical tracking,” Zero2infinity representative Iris Silverio told Universe Today via email. Zero2infinity plans on conducting another balloon test with Aistechsat-1 later this month at on an as yet to be announced date. The final decision all hinges on the weather and the wind speeds aloft.

Aistech envisions a constellation of 25 such nanosatellites encircling the planet.

Zero2infinity also has a grander vision: eventually launching satellites into Low Earth Orbit via balloon. Known as Bloostar, this system would loft a three stage rocket with the company’s existing and proven Near Space balloon technology. The ‘launch’ would occur high in the upper atmosphere, as the engines take over to get the payload into orbit.

The idea is certainly attractive. Dubbed a ‘shortcut to space,’ the three engine booster rings depicted are a fraction of the size of typical rocket stages. The toroid ring-shaped stages are simply nestled one in side the other, like Russian dolls. Zero2infinity also envisions scaling its ‘Bloon’ platform for micro and nano payloads… and I’ll bet that a Bloostar atmospheric launch will be an interesting spectacle to watch with binoculars from the ground, especially around dawn or dusk.

Another possible advantage includes a much more spacious payload nose cone, meaning no more folding of satellites for launch and unfolding them in orbit. More than a few payloads have suffered setbacks because of this, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter, whose main antenna failed to unfurl completely in 1990.

According to an email discussion with Zero2infinity representative Silverio, the first commercial Bloostar launch is set for 2019, with possible orbital trials starting as early as 2018. Bloostar deployments will occur off the coast of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. The initial Bloostar launcher will deploy payloads up to 75 kilograms in a 600 kilometer orbit around the Earth.

Rise of the Rockoons

The idea of conducting launches via balloon, known as a ‘rockoon,’ has been around for a while. Thus far, only sub-orbital launches have been conducted in this manner.

The first balloon-based launch of a rocket occurred on August 9th, 1953, when a Deacon rockoon successfully carried out a sub-orbital launch high over the Atlantic Ocean. Though several companies have kicked around the idea of launching an orbital satellite via balloon-based platform, Zero2infinity might just be the first to actually accomplish it. The United States Department of Defense has considered the idea of launching satellites (and satellite-killing missiles) via the U.S. Air Force’s high flying F-15 Eagle aircraft. Orbital Sciences does currently use its Pegasus-XL rocket carried aloft by a L1011 aircraft to place satellites in orbit. That’s how NASA’s NuSTAR X-ray telescope got into space in 2012.

There is one main problem facing balloon-based space launches: weather. Unlike aircraft, balloons are often at the whims of the winds aloft, and sometimes stubbornly refuse to go where you want them to. Often, an orbital launch will need to target a precise azimuth heading, a tricky sort of pointing to do from underneath a balloon. Still, we’ve already seen precedent for overcoming this in the effective pointing of balloon-based telescopes, such as the BLAST telescope.

Bloostar might just provide an innovative and cost-effective way to head into orbit, very soon.

-Check out this 2014 article from Universe Today on Zero2Infinity.

-Zero2Infinity also caught last year’s total solar eclipse over the Arctic from aloft.

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ESA Prepares Revolutionary Air Breathing Rocket Engine

The SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) could revolutionize access to space. Image: Reaction Engines

If new rocket engines being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) are successful, they could revolutionize rocket technology and change the way we get to space. The engine, called the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), is designed to use atmospheric air in the early flight stages, before switching to conventional rocket mode for the final ascent to space. If all goes well, this new air-breathing rocket could be ready for test firings in about four years.

Conventional rockets have to carry an on-board oxidizer such as liquid oxygen, which is combined with fuel in the rocket’s combustion chamber. This means rockets can require in excess of 250 tons of liquid oxygen in order to function. Once this oxygen is consumed in the first stages, these used up stages are discarded, creating massive waste and expense. (Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing re-usable rockets to help circumvent this problem, but they’re still conventional rockets.)

Conventional rockets carry their own oxygen because its temperature and pressure can be controlled. This guarantees the performance of the rocket, but requires complicated systems to do so. SABRE will eliminate the need for carrying most on-board oxygen, but this is not easy to do.

SABRE’s challenge is to compress the atmospheric oxygen to about 140 atmospheres before introducing it into the engine’s combustion chambers. But compressing the oxygen to that degree raises its temperature so much that it would melt the engines. The solution to that is to cool the air with a pre-cooling heat exchanger, to the point where it’s almost a liquid. At that point, a turbine based on standard jet engine technology can compress the air to the required operating temperature.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/45371849[/embed]

This means that while SABRE is in Earth’s atmosphere, it uses air to burn its hydrogen fuel, rather than liquid oxygen. This gives it an 8 x improvement in propellant consumption. Once SABRE has reached about 25 km in altitude, where the air is thinner, it switches modes and operates as a standard rocket. By the time it switches modes, it’s already about 20% of the way into Earth orbit.

Like a lot of engineering challenges, understanding what needs to be done is not the hard part. Actually developing these technologies is extremely difficult, even though many people just assume engineers will be successful. The key for Reaction Engines Ltd, the company developing SABRE, is to develop the light weight heat exchangers at the heart of the engine.

Heat exchangers are common in industry, but these heat exchangers have to cool incoming air from 1000 Celsius to -150 Celsius in less than 1/100th of a second, and they have to do it while preventing frost from forming. They are extremely light, at about 100 times lighter than current technology, which will allow them to be used in aerospace for the first time. Some of the lightness factor of these new heat exchanges stems from the wall thickness of the tubing, which is less than 30 microns. That’s less than the thickness of a human hair.

Reaction Engines Limited says that these heat exchangers will have the same impact on aerospace propulsion systems that silicone chips had on computing.

A new funding agreement with the ESA will provide Reaction Engines with 10 million Euros for continued development of SABRE. This will add to the 50 million Pounds that the UK Space Agency has already contributed. That 50 million Pound investment was the result of a favorable viability review of SABRE that the ESA performed in 2010.

IN 2012, the pre-cooler and the heat exchangers were tested. After that came more R&D, including the development of altitude-compensating rocket nozzles, thrust chamber cooling, and air intakes.

Now that the feasibility of SABRE has been strengthened, Reaction Engines wants to build a ground demonstrator engine by 2020. If the continued development of SABRE goes well, and if testing by 2020 is successful, then these Air Breathing rocket engines will be in a position to truly revolutionize access to space.

In ESA’s words, “ESA are confident that a ground test of a sub-scale engine can be successfully performed to demonstrate the flight regime and cycle and will be a critical milestone in the development of this program and a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide.”

Bring it on.

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NASA Brings Back the X-Plane, and This One’s Electric

An artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft, a new electric X-plane that is quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc

While NASA has had a long and storied history of building and testing experimental aircraft – called X-planes — it has been almost a decade since the space agency has developed any new aircraft. But an initiative announced earlier this year as part of the new budget has NASA back designing, building and flying a new series of X-planes, with the goal of creating more “green” aviation technologies that can then be utilized by the aeronautics industry.

NASA unveiled the first plane in the new X series, an electric aircraft with 14 motors integrated into a new wing design. This experimental airplane has been designated the X-57, with the nickname of “Maxwell,” to honor James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, speaking at an annual forum of theAmerican Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Other new X-plane designs include larger transport-scale aircraft that will use less fuel and create less noise, and a business-jet-sized supersonic vehicle that burns low carbon bio-fuels and generates only quiet sonic booms that people on the ground will barely hear them. The main goals of the new X-planes will be to demonstrate how airliners can burn half the fuel, saving airline companies money, while generating 75 percent less pollution during each flight as compared to now. They’ll also be much quieter than today’s jets.

The X-57 Maxwell has newly designed long, skinny wings embedded with 14 electric motors – 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude. The idea is that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph.

NASA’s first X-plane was the X-1, which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. It was flown by Chuck Yeager and was featured in the book and movie “The Right Stuff.” While many of the aircraft were well known — like the X-15 that became the fastest piloted aircraft of the X-plane program — other aircraft were developed clandestinely. Other experimental aircraft included research on lifting bodies and other wing designs or unique engines like the scramjet. Other experimental aircraft didn’t carry the “X” designation, like the Navy’s D-558-II Skyrocket, but was flown by Scott Crossfield in 1953 to become the first airplane to travel twice the speed of sound, or Mach 2.

“Dozens of X-planes of all shapes, sizes and purposes have followed – all of them contributing to our stature as the world’s leader in aviation and space technology,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role.”

Further reading: NASA

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90 Years Ago Goddard’s Liquid-Fuelled Rocket Launched Spaceflight

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and a liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket in the frame from which it was fired on March 16, 1926, at Auburn, Massachusetts. Image: NASA/Clark University Robert H. Goddard Archive

The invention of the rocket changed space science forever. The Universe could only be inspected from the surface of the Earth, with all that atmosphere in the way, until rockets were invented. And as far as the modern age of rocketry goes, it all started 90 years ago with Robert Goddard’s liquid-fuelled rocket.

Goddard was a dreamer. He envisioned rocket-powered spacecraft plying the solar system. Obviously, he passed away before interplanetary travel materialized, but his work on rocketry certainly laid the groundwork for that eventual achievement. The Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him, and it’s doubtful that any engineering or technology student in the world doesn’t know who he is.

Goddard’s first liquid-fuelled rocket was modest by today’s standards, of course. But he had to solve several technical challenges to achieve it, and his ability to solve these challenges led to not only this first flight, but to a total of 34 rocket flights in 15 years, from 1926 to 1941. His rockets reached the altitude of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) and speeds of 885 km/h (550 mph.) He also patented 214 inventions.

Goddard is considered the father of modern rocket science, but he is actually one of three men who are considered the main contributors to modern rocketry. Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1858-1935) and German Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) are the other founding fathers of modern rocketry.

Goddard didn’t invent rocketry, of course. The Chinese used rockets as far back as the 13th century, and rockets made appearances throughout history as weapons and fireworks. But Goddard’s success at liquid-fuelled rocketry, and the capabilities that came with it, is when rocketry really got off the ground. (Sorry.)

Nowadays, Goddard is understood to be a driven and highly-intelligent person, the type of person who is responsible for advancing science and technology. But back in his time, before he had successful flights, he and his ideas were ridiculed. Check out this criticism from the New York Times, January 13th, 1920:

“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Stinging words, to be sure, but people who know anything about the history of science are familiar with this kind of condemnation of brilliant people, coming from those who lack vision.

Now of course, we have huge rockets. Great thundering beasts that lift enormous loads out of Earth’s gravity well. And we’re so accustomed to rocket launches now that they barely make news. But I always get a kick out of imagining what people like Goddard would feel if they were able to view a launch of one of today’s behemoths, like the Ariane 5. I’m sure his chest would swelled with pride, and he would be amazed at what people have accomplished.

But his vindication wouldn’t just come from the huge leaps we’ve made in rocket technology, and the huge rockets we now routinely launch. It would also come from this retraction, delivered decades too late but with class, by the New York Times, on July 17 1969, the day after Apollo 11 launched:

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

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NASA’s New X-Plane Program to Bring Quiet Supersonic Flight

An illustration of what a quiet supersonic passenger aircraft might look like. Image: Lockheed Martin.

NASA has plans to develop new supersonic passenger aircraft that are not only quieter, but also greener and less expensive to operate. If NASA’s 2017 budget is approved, the agency will re-start their X-Plane program, the same program which was responsible for the first supersonic flight almost 70 years ago. And if all goes according to plan, the first test-model could be flying as soon as 2020.

The problem with supersonic flight—and the reason it’s banned— is the uber-loud boom that it creates. When an aircraft passes the speed of sound, a shockwave is created in the air it passes through. This shockwave can travel up to 40 kilometres (25 miles), and can even break windows. NASA thinks new aircraft designs can prevent this, and it starts with abandoning the ‘tube and wings’ model that current passenger aircraft design adheres to. It’s hoped that new designs will avoid the sonic booms that cause so much disturbance, and instead produce more of a soft thump, or supersonic ‘heartbeat.’

The image above shows what a hybrid wing-body aircraft might look like. Rather than a tube with wings attached, this design uses a unified body and wings built together. It’s powered by turbofan engines, and has vertical fins on the rear to direct sound up and away from the ground. (Just don’t ask for a window seat.)

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has been chosen to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST.) They will have about 17 months to produce a design, which will then lead to a more detailed designing, building, and testing of a new QueSST jet, about half the size of a production aircraft. This aircraft will then have to undergo analytical testing and wind-tunnel validation.

After the design and build of QueSST will come the Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) phase. During the LBFD phase, NASA will seek community input on the aircraft’s performance and noise factor.

But noise reduction is not the only goal of NASA’s new X-Plane program. NASA administrator Charles Bolden acknowledged this when he said, “NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter—all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently.” 

NASA has been working in recent years to reduce aircraft fuel consumption by 15%, and engine nitrogen oxide emissions by 75%. These goals are part of their Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, which began in 2009. Other goals of ERA include reducing aircraft drag by 8% and aircraft weight by 10%. These goals dovetail nicely with their revamped X-Plane initiative.

It’s hard to bet against NASA. They’re one of the most effective organizations on Earth, and when they set goals, they tend to meet them. If their X-Plane program can achieve its goals, it will be a win for aircraft design, for paying customers, and for the environment.

For a look at the history of the X-Plane project, look here.

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Blue Origin Reaches Another Milestone: Reusable Rocket Launches and Lands Safely

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket has successfully launched and landed a second time. Image: Blue Origin

On Friday, January 22nd, commercial space company Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its reusable rocket, New Shepard, at their launch facility in Texas. This is the second flight for New Shepard, showing that reusable rockets are on their way to becoming the launch system of choice. New Shepard launched, travelled to apogee at 101.7 kilometres, (63.19 miles) and then descended to land safely at their site in West Texas. This is the first successful reuse of a rocket in history.

Reusable rockets are an important development for space travel. Rockets are enormously expensive, and having to trash each rocket after a single use makes commercial space flight a real challenge. Blue Origin—and other companies like SpaceX—are blazing a trail to cheaper space flight with their reusable designs. This is great, not only for all the good sciencey reasons that we love so much, but because eventually civilian space enthusiasts may be able to travel past the Karman Line without having to sell all their possessions to do so. (Reserve your ticket here.)

This video shows New Shepard launching, travelling and sticking its landing.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74tyedGkoUc[/embed]

 

At the heart of New Shepard is its dynamically gimballed engine, which aims itself as it approaches the ground. This system allows the rocket to land precisely and safely, and is at the heart of its reusability. It’s also a system that scales well: rather than New Shepard just showing that reusable rockets are a feasible concept, but will require significant advancements before being scalable to larger payloads, the gimballed engine system will actually perform better with larger mass. This is because of the inverted pendulum problem.

The Blue Origin website explains it well:

“Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. We solved the inverted pendulum problem on New Shepard with an engine that dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends.”

The Space Shuttle was the first system to come close to being a Reusable Launch System (RLS), although it was only partially reusable. It reused its main engines, as well as two solid rocket boosters, though they took months of refitting. Other components of the shuttle were discarded after a single use. New Shepard reuses its whole system, other than some components like pyro igniters, and of course the parachutes from the crew capsule.

Blue Origin is on a roll, and they’ll be continuing to develop New Shepard. They plan to keep launching and landing New Shepard, and refining the system. They are also developing their next engine, the BE4, which will increase the system’s thrust by 500%.

New Shepard’s first flight took place in November 2015, and we covered it here.

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Space Stories to Watch in 2016

An artist's conception of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. image credit: NASA

2015 was an amazing year in space, as worlds such as Pluto and Ceres snapped into sharp focus. 2015 also underlined the mantra that ‘space in hard,’ as SpaceX rode the roller coaster from launch failure, to a dramatic return to flight in December, complete with a nighttime landing of its stage 1 Falcon 9 rocket back at Cape Canaveral. So, what’s in store for 2016? How about a mission to Mars, Jupiter, and – just maybe — a groundbreaking discovery in astrophysics? Here’s our drill-down of space stories to watch in 2016:

Juno Arrives at Jupiter

After several years of space travel, NASA’s Juno mission will enter orbit around Jupiter next year. Launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5th, 2011, Juno will only be the second spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter, and the first mission to the outer solar system that won’t utilize nuclear power. Instead, Juno is equipped with three enormous bus-sized solar panels. Juno will study the magnetosphere, magnetic field and gravitational environment of Jove in its wide-ranging path. Expect Juno to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4th, 2016.

Gravitational Waves Discovered?

Could astronomers directly detect gravitational waves in the coming year… just over a century after Einstein’s special theory of relativity predicted them? It’s a very real possibility, as the Advanced LIGO project went online in late 2015. Sporting ten times the sensitivity of the original LIGO project, Advanced LIGO ‘should’ detect gravitational waves generated by black hole and pulsar mergers and extra-galactic supernovae. If it doesn’t, something is seriously wrong with our theories of cosmology. This could be the physics story of 2016 along the lines of the CERN Higgs-Boson discovery, if direct detection is accomplished.

Heavy Rockets Take Flight

Both China and SpaceX may debut their heavy lift rockets in 2016. China is set to perform its inaugural launch of its Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Space Center sometime in the next year. Meanwhile, SpaceX is set to launch its Falcon Heavy lift rocket from the Kennedy Space Center this coming April. Yeah, I know: we’ve been chasing this one as a ‘space story to watch’ for a couple years now… but 2016 looks like the year that the Falcon Heavy will indeed break the surly bonds. And NASA’s SLS heavy lifter? Expect the first uncrewed flight in the 2018 time frame, with astronauts riding atop the rocket beyond low Earth orbit three years beyond that.

Dream Chaser Launch

The Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to conduct the first orbital launch of their Dream Chaser spacecraft in 2016. A space plane looking like a miniature space shuttle, Dream Chaser will launch vertically atop an Atlas V rocket, then land on a runway like an aircraft. The Dream Chaser can carry a crew of seven. Expect to see the first historic launch of Dream Chaser from the Kennedy Space Center on November 1st, 2016.

A Mission to Mars

NASA’s InSight Lander may have been grounded earlier this month, but the European Space Agency still plans its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission to Mars in the Spring of 2016, along with the joint ESA/Roscomos Schiaparelli technology demonstrator lander. This lander is set to test tech needed for the 2018 ExoMars rover. Hey, this could be Russia’s first successful landing on the Red Planet after seven tries!

Rosetta ‘Crashes’ into a Comet

Rosetta’s mission orbiting a comet will come to a dramatic end in 2016, with a ‘controlled crash’ into comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission arrived at Comet 67/P C-G on August 6th, 2014, gave us some amazing insights into the bizarro world of cometary life, and deposited the Philae lander on the surface, to boot. Expect Rosetta to come to rest on the surface of the comet on September 30th, 2016.

Cassini’s Final Year at Saturn

In orbit around Saturn for over a decade, 2016 is the last full year of operations for Cassini, which will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn in 2017. The only mission to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini has given us some stunning views of the planet, its system of rings and moons, and delivered the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander to the surface of Titan on January 14th, 2005. As the end of Cassini’s life nears, expect engineers to perform some bold close flybys of Saturn’s moons, and thread the ring system of Saturn for some final spectacular closeups.

A Exoplanet Bonanza 

Amid the usual press releases of the ‘hottest, fastest, weirdest,’ could we find something truly groundbreaking in 2016? Maybe exomoons, better images through direct detection, etc? On Earth, systems such as the Gemini Planet Imager are giving us progressively better direct views of exoplanets, and missions such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) are set to carry on Kepler’s legacy in 2018. Small bet: the current tally of exoplanets sits at 2,041 at the close of 2015; by 2020, that number will have grown to 10,000.

A Serious SETI Search

SETI got a boost in 2015 with the Breakthrough Listen initiative, which gets underway in earnest in 2016. Breakthrough Listen is a 10 year, $100 million dollar initiative funded under Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives. Combining search time split between the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Telescope in Australia, expect Breakthrough Listen to begin combing the 1-to-10 GHz ‘quiet zone’ of the radio spectrum over a greater swath of sky than ever before starting in late 2016.

Iridium Satellites: the NEXT Generation

The new generation of Iridium mobile phone satellites, known as IridiumNEXT, begins deployment in 2016, with the first launch atop a Dnepr rocket from Dombarosky, Russia sometime in April 2016. Built by Iridium Communications Incorporated, this project to field a new and more robust constellation of communications satellites will most likely—like the first deployment of Iridium satellites by Motorola—take several years. The deorbit phase-out of the old system of 66 satellites will likewise take time. Unfortunately for backyard sat-spotters, the new generation of Iridium satellites probably won’t flare as brilliantly as their predecessors.

The International Space Station Heads into its Extended Life

Way back when construction was finished in 2009, word was the ISS would eventually be deorbited in 2016… but it looks like NASA will try to keep the station going now well into the 2020s. An unexpected increase in the FY2016 budget for NASA sees the ISS funded to the tune of five billion dollars, including money for SpaceX and Boeing to continue development on a crewed spacecraft as an alternative to the Russian Soyuz for access to the station. Astronaut Scott Kelly will also complete his ‘year in space’ on March 2nd, 2016, breaking the US human spaceflight duration record in the process.

OSIRIS REx Launches

NASA’s ambitious asteroid sample return mission also launches in 2016: The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource, Identification, Security, and Regolith EXplorer known as OSIRIS REx launches from Cape Canaveral in September 2016. The mission will rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2018. If all goes well, expect the sample return mission to arrive back in the vicinity of the Earth in September 2019.

A Solar Sail Launch in 2016?

Remember the excitement surrounding LightSail-A in early 2015? The full-fledged LightSail-1 demonstrator fielded by the Planetary Society is set to launch in April on the inaugural first flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy. Unlike LightSail-A, which operated briefly in low-Earth orbit before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, LightSail-1 will demonstrate true solar wind pressure sailing in a higher 500 mile orbit.

One more thing. A semi-depressing milestone comes to pass at the end of 2016, as we head towards a span of time where no astronauts have launched from U.S. soil equal to the gap between Apollo (The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1976) and the start of the U.S. Space Shuttle program with STS-1 in 1981. True, we’ve kept the human occupation of space ongoing aboard the International Space Station, but it looks like this record may be broken with room to spare — until SpaceX launches crew in late 2017.

See you in 2016!

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Spotting Asterix: France Marks 50 Years of Space Exploration

Author’s note: In the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks, the French Space Agency CNES canceled the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Asterix. This post commemorates the launch of France’s first satellite 50 years ago this week, and pays a small tribute to the noblest of human endeavors, namely the […]

Spotting Asterix: France Marks 50 Years of Space Exploration

Author’s note: In the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks, the French Space Agency CNES canceled the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Asterix. This post commemorates the launch of France’s first satellite 50 years ago this week, and pays a small tribute to the noblest of human endeavors, namely the […]