From The Ground Up

Some of the things we can do these days are pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. Here’s an example: earlier this month an astrophotographer took a picture of astronauts performing spacewalk maneuvers around the International Space Station–from the ground. That’s the photo, above.

Dr. Sebastian Voltmer took the photograph on March 23, as astronauts Raja Chari (from NASA) and Matthias Maurer (from the European Space Agency) were in the middle of a seven-hour spacewalk. Dr. Voltmer took the picture just after sunset, from Maurer’s hometown of Sankt Wendel, Germany. You can see the two astronauts in the photo–which Dr. Voltmer considers to be a “once-in-a-lifetime image.”

What’s amazing is that the ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles, or 420 kilometers. Dr. Voltmer says he used a Celestron 11-inch EdgeHD telescope on a GM2000 HPS mount and an ASI290 planetary camera to take the photo–which means you probably shouldn’t attempt this with your new iPhone.

A clear photo taken from the ground of astronauts working on a space station, 227 miles up? I guess the future is here.

The Dangers Of Debris

On November 11, the International Space Station (“ISS”) had to make an unplanned course correction. A supply ship docked to the station had to fire its rockets for about six minutes to change the station’s speed and raise its orbit slightly so the ISS could avoid striking a large piece of space debris that could have damaged the ISS and imperiled the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board.

Unfortunately, the space around the Earth is getting increasingly crowded. In fact, it has become a kind of junkyard up there. In the November 11 incident, the ISS dodged a part of a Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.  It doesn’t help that governments are blasting their own satellites into smithereens, adding to the existing debris fields. The article linked above notes that the 2007 missile test smashed the Chinese weather satellite “into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting” and many of which “have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.”

And governments are continuing to use their satellites for target practice, notwithstanding the risks. Just this week, the Russian government conducted a missile tests on one of its old satellites that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that required the crew of the ISS to take shelter in their return ships. When the United States protested what it called a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test, the Russians blithely replied that they were tracking the debris it created and claimed that the safety of the ISS crew was their “main priority.” Of course, in this case actions speak a lot louder than words.

Incidentally, the target for the Russian missile strike was an intelligence satellite that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched in 1982 that has been inoperative for decades. When you consider all of the old satellites that are in orbit around Earth, you realize it’s a target-rich environment for trigger-happy governments. And the overcrowding and debris problem gets worse with every new launch of a communications satellite to support cellphone and internet services.

We’ve got to figure out a way to address the space debris problem so the ISS, and the space stations to come, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger. Step one would be to get governments to address to stop blasting their own old satellites and littering the orbital pathways with dangerous junk. Step two would be to reach agreement on an approach to retrieving the junk and defunct satellites and safely returning them to Earth. With all of the space-related activity that has been occurring recently, you’d think that governments could put their missiles aside for a while and reach agreement on a way to clear the near-Earth space and allow everyone to use it.

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

Enter The Dragon

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully rendevoused with the International Space Station and has been snagged by the space station’s robot arm.

The Dragon capsule therefore becomes the first privately owned space vehicle to reach the ISS.  This morning the astronauts on the space station opened the capsule and entered it, conducted a quick inspection and found no sign of any problems with the interior, and indeed reported that the capsule had that familiar “new car smell.”  So far, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and its Dragon capsule have performed flawlessly — reaching orbit, conducting the maneuvering tests that showed that the capsule could safely be brought near the ISS, and then ultimately delivering the payload.

We now have a private company with the technology and human know-how to put a vehicle into space and haul cargo to an orbiting destination.  The Dragon’s successful delivery is a huge step forward toward increased exploration and development of space, in an era where commercial entities will bear an increasingly significant part of the cost — and, not incidentally, will look to reap profit from their investments.  With SpaceX leading the way, other companies will not be far behind.

Another Benefit From Space Exploration

Proponents of space exploration and development have always argued that there will be lots of benefits from being able to do things in zero gravity.  Form perfect spheres.  Create chemical and metallurgical compounds that wouldn’t be possible in Earth’s heavy gravity.  Experiment with positions undreamed of by the authors of the Kama Sutra.

Now there’s another item to add to the list — the Ardbeg distillery, which has been making whiskey for more than 300 years, has sent malt to the International Space Station to see how the malt, and some charred oak, mature and interact in zero gravity conditions.  The hope is that the process might lead to the development of new flavors or other discoveries that benefit the whiskey industry.

I’m all in favor of this use of the International Space Station.  The Station shouldn’t be limited to boring science experiments devised by the junior biology class at Shaker Heights High School.  Why not see if basic consumer products can be improved?

I can’t stand the smell or taste of scotch, no matter how much its afficionados rave about its subtle taste and scent and nuanced aftertones.  If the International Space Station can somehow help to develop a scotch that doesn’t smell and taste like lighter fluid, it will have been worth every penny.

Our Awesome Earth

The crew of the International Space Station recently took a series of time-lapse photographs of the Earth using a special camera.  The results, when strung together, are stunning.  (Pay no attention, incidentally, to the uninspired music accompanying the photos — these pictures are worthy of accompaniment by the finest Bach cantata, or a Mozart symphony, or perhaps a piece by Louis Armstrong.)

These photos just demonstrate why I would be a worthless astronaut.  I couldn’t resist spending all of my time at the window, staring slack-jawed in amazement as our magnificent world slid slowly by.

Say Hello To R2, And To The Future

When the space shuttle Discovery finally reaches the international space station, it will bring a visitor that will stay there for a long, long time.  The visitor is called R2 — a robot that represents another advance in robotics.

R2 currently consists of a head, a torso, and arms, so he won’t be moving around the space station at first.  (I suppose R2 technically should be referred to as “it,” but how can you not assign human terms to a humanoid figure?)  His golden head includes five cameras, his arms and hands are amazingly dextrous, and his abdomen is a mass of electronics.  Initially, R2 will be working at a taskboard that will show his capabilities.  The video below gives an interesting glimpse of what R2 can do — including his weight-lifting abilities.  It appears, however, that R2 is still directed and controlled by humans.  I imagine that the next, key step in robot development will be creation of a sensory processing device that will allow robots to perceive circumstances and independently decide what task to undertake next.

I think we are on the cusp of huge leaps forward in robotic technology, and R2 is just one of many steps in the process.  I wonder:  how long will it take before robots are offered to the public, and at affordable prices?  In my lifetime will we see household robots that do the dishes, fold the laundry, and tidy up the house while we are away at work?