Category Archives: Lessons

A Motorcycle Rider Defines Space Situational Awareness

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There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years regarding space situational awareness (SSA). Almost every month another article appears, portending of the upcoming calamity in space–the point in which one rogue satellite or a chunk of debris hits another satellite or chunk of debris. These two chunks initiate a celestial version of pool. As in pool, one chunk will hit another chunk which speeds on to hit another chunk or cluster of chunks. The struck chunks fan out, hitting other chunks, and then those chunks hit even more chunks, and so on.

Invariably the hand-wringing prompts online conversations about whether this space-snooker-based scenario is realistically depicted in the movie “Gravity” (that Sandra, she floats so gracefully in space). Inevitably, a new round of blog posts use the computer-generated picture showing thousands of pixels surrounding the Earth–with each pixel representing one of the tens of thousands of objects, normally junk, orbiting the Earth.

The resulting picture from these conversations and blog posts is clear–the end is nigh, space-wise. Humanity has once again junked up another environment, and will soon reap what’s been sown. Unless we stop those smaller, less expensive satellites from messing it all up. Or something like that anyway.

According to some people, the number of objects (satellites, debris, rocket bodies, etc.) in orbit is reaching scary levels–tens of thousands–which is why they are verbally wringing their hands for public consumption. Is this a “chicken-littling” of space, or is there really something to worry about here? Is the blame for debris really so clear cut? Before getting to the answer, it’s probably useful to define SSA, particularly for readers new to the space arena.

There are many folks with specific definitions of SSA. The U.S. military is interested in the position, identification, and activities of objects orbiting the Earth which might potentially compromise the U.S. ability to defend itself or carry out global missions. The Europeans encompass some of the U.S. military SSA definition, but include discovering and identifying Near Earth Objects–things in space that might eventually literally have an impact on Earth if they get too close–and space weather.

For this post’s purposes, I will use my motorcycle and traffic survival skills to demonstrate SSA, but if you’re a car driver, you’ve been using aspects of SSA already.

When I first bought my motorcycle, I went through a motorcycle safety class (it’s a useful class–take it if you can). The class imparted one particular acronym that stays with me even now, 17 years later: SIPDE. Each word in the acronym suggests a way to survive on the road and hones great habits for motorcycle riding. S–Scan; I-Identify; P-Predict; D-Decide; E-Execute.

SIPDE reminds a rider to constantly use the tools at hand– eyes, brain, and motor skills-to make a rider aware of what’s happening close by, and then do something to keep the rider safe. Eyes scan for anything that may literally impact the rider. Once a rider’s eyes see something, the rider’s mind identifies it, internally racking and stacking the “threat.”

A rider then predicts what the object may do (a dog or child might run obliviously into the road, a self-righteous cyclist might blow through the stop sign from the left, a truck driver in the rear view mirror is on the phone and might not even see the rider). Once the prediction is made, the rider decides on a course of action, and then does it. This kind of cycle goes on if it’s ingrained in the rider, and it all will take place in seconds.

So, how do motorcycles and SIPDE have anything to do with space?  Essentially the same actions help define SSA, except a satellite takes the place of the rider. The orbit is the “road” the satellite is on. The tools for scanning, instead of a rider’s eyes and brain, are networks radars and telescopes on Earth’s surface–although some nations have a few space-based SSA “eyes” too. The brains are the people and computers trying to make sense of what’s nearby in orbit (is an object at the same altitude, is it on a path to intersect with another satellite’s “road,” etc.).

These people and computers are also attempting to identify objects close to the satellite’s “road”–its orbit (is it the body of a rocket, is it small debris, is it a satellite that seems to be moving from it’s orbit). Once they figure out what an object is, then they must decide whether the object is a threat, and predict possible actions of the object. The people in this SSA network must then decide what to do and then do it. This may be as simple as notifying satellite owners about a possible collision, or just monitoring the same objects to see if anything changes.

But how bad is it really, out there? Exactly how many objects are orbiting the Earth? Again, is this a “chicken-littling” of space, or is there really something to worry about? Is the blame for debris really so clear cut?

The answer, as it always seems to be, is: it depends. That’s where I’ll end it today, but my next post should hopefully give some perspective.

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Blue Origin’s In-flight Escape Test

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No, it’s not the New Shepard, but a Little Joe. Picture courtesy of NASA.

It’s not every day that you see a rocket come apart in mid-air, fire coming from each part, and then have both parts come back to Earth, safely. But that’s just what Blue Origin did today during their in-flight escape test of the New Shepard rocket and capsule. When the smoke and dust cleared, the New Shepard booster was standing on the pad again, just as it had done four times before.

And of course the capsule parachuted safely nearby. While Blue Origin hasn’t really released any new information, the video narrator might have mentioned the booster had gone past 248,000 feet (75.5 km or nearly 47 miles) to apogee, before coming back. Honestly, that may be all you wish to know, and you can go see this morning’s test right here: https://www.blueorigin.com/#youtubebqUIX3Z4r3k.

Don’t let the 1 hour and 1 minute video deter you. There was a combined hold/count reset of about 30 minutes. But if you want to go straight to the action go to the 50 minute mark and enjoy the show.

However, for you space-history buffs, Blue Origin mentions the Little Joe II rocket test NASA conducted in January 1966. You can see a short bit of the test’s footage at the 3:18 mark in the video. It’s relevant to Blue Origin in that the test was also an in-flight rocket test crucial for making sure the Apollo escape system worked. I actually wrote about the Little Joe II test back in January this year for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch,” linking the test to other rocket escape systems, including Russian ones. You can read about the history here: Testing the Lifeboat.

One other bit of trivia about Little Joe. Unless you’re a craps fan, you may not know the name is related to a specific thrown dice configuration in the game of craps. Specifically, each dice must show a two. If you put both of those two dice together, then that’s what the bottom of the Little Joe rocket looked like with nozzles in place in the original drawings for it. You can read a bit about it at the Boeing history site (it was originally build by North American Aviation): http://www.boeing.com/history/products/little-joe-launch-vehicle.page. Another story about why it was called Little Joe is on a NASA site, here: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_littlejoe.html. Something to do with the success of rolling a “Little Joe” being related the way the rocket was built.

 

Another “Space Watch” article…

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“Ride ’em cowboy”–a bit of encouragement Pete Conrad gives to Richard Gordon while straddling the spacecraft. Image from NASA.

While I’ve been lying low content-wise on the site here, I’ve been staying pretty busy at work. One of the many fun things I get to do is to look up historic events leading up to the Apollo moon missions, and then write a little bit about the event for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch” monthly newsletter.

In this particular “Space Watch” article, titled Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service,” I try to describe the activities of two brave astronauts during a Gemini mission fifty years ago. What they did gives the category of “space operations” an entirely different meaning, and shows just what kind of interesting and courageous explorers they were.

While many NASA fans seem to attribute the administration’s achievements to the idea of NASA itself, I’ve always felt it was the people within, such as Gordon and Conrad in this story, who really moved the agency forward toward the lunar missions and subsequent successes. This is not to downplay the mission controllers, engineers, and others who all played their part. Indeed, it’s the team, the people, who figure out how to overcome challenges, and then move ahead. But the astronauts in particular put their lives on the line during space missions. Whether it’s NASA, or in the future, one particular company or other that starts regular manned flights to space, the professionals called astronauts will still be the ones trading the ability to “fly” in space with the possibility of real, deathly, consequences.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you enjoy Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service.”

Your Comrade Through Space History

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Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: http://inspacewetrust.org/en/. Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: http://inspacewetrust.org/. Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Spinning Right Round

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The Agena Target Vehicle, viewed from Gemini VIII. Image from JSC Digital Image Collection.

This is my latest article for the Space Foundation’s monthly “Space Watch.” If you didn’t know, I’ve been writing a series of articles, once a month, since I started working for the Space Foundation in 2014. The series highlights all the activities leading up to the first Apollo lunar mission, including some Gemini missions and tests.

In this particular article, NASA’s astronauts not only attempt the second ever rendezvous of spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, they also give a shot at docking (actually physically connecting) two spacecraft in orbit. It was a very ambitious mission, and as is the way of the world, not everything went as planned. Here it is: Rendezvous Re-do Revolution. And don’t forget to read some of the other Foundation articles in “Space Watch.”